2011 In Review
At the end of a tumultuous year for high speed rail in California, opponents are increasingly confident they can kill the project and retard California’s hopes of economic recovery and energy independence. But a review of the year about to end shows that the most important factor in shaping high speed rail’s fate hasn’t been the NIMBYs or deniers here in California. Instead, the extremists in the House Republican Caucus in Washington DC have played the most important role in determining what happens to high speed rail in California. By throwing into question the future of federal funding, they have created a context in which the opponents’ campaign of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt could gain more traction.
This took place against a backdrop of an ongoing battle – maybe even a war – over the future of California and the United States as a whole. American politics today is defined not by right versus left, not by Democrats versus Republicans, but by those who want to preserve the 20th century at all costs and those who want to build a better, more sustainable 21st century future.
Those who want a better future won a major victory in November 2008, electing Barack Obama and passing Proposition 1A in California, approving the high speed rail project and $10 billion in funds to start building it. And at the time they believed little stood in the way of achieving the better 21st century future. But they underestimated the numbers and power of those who were dead set against change and improvements. Those opponents might be classified as NIMBYs, as Tea Partiers, as supporters of austerity, but they all shared the same root belief that the changes they were beginning to see unfold were bad and had to be stopped – even if the cost of doing so was prolonging the worst economic crisis in 60 years.
By 2009 the defenders of the failed 20th century status quo had begun to limit what President Obama could accomplish in DC, and in 2010 they won electoral victories across America – though notably, NOT in California, where a forward-looking Democratic Party swept all statewide races and did not lose a single seat in Congress or the legislature.
Still, the opponents of change in California had new allies in Congress, where control of the House had flipped to what is undoubtedly the most radical and extreme group of people to ever hold a majority in that body in its entire history. House Republicans began waging war on 21st century America in all its forms – as well as going hard after much of the 20th century too, in ways that both surprised and alienated many of their 2010 voters. High speed rail was just one casualty of this insane attack on American civilization. House Republicans nearly defaulted on American debt, brought the federal government close to shutdown on numerous occasions, rolled back decades’ worth of women’s rights, and demanded and won pledges from Democrats and President Obama for massive austerity that will cripple any future economic recovery.
As House Republicans succeeded in killing further funding for high speed rail in 2011 and 2012, this allowed critics here in California to use that to call into question the project’s viability. Never mind the polling data suggesting Republican rule in the House is unlikely to last beyond 2012 – HSR opponents and their media allies, both of whom are inherently small-c conservative and oppose change, nevertheless assumed these cuts were permanent, that they would last forever, and that no future Congress would ever reverse them.
In that context, the California High Speed Rail Authority’s excellent work in 2011 – a year that represented a major turnaround for the organization – was ignored in favor of story after story, always rooted in flawed or even false evidence, that suggested something was wrong with the project. Those stories weren’t new, but without promises of federal funding, the project’s problems seemed more significant and harder to resolve.
Yet the CHSRA had done good work to resolve them. A new board with new leadership began finding ways to cut costs, saving $500 million so far in the Valley. But that has been largely ignored by a media that has become shockingly biased in its reporting against the project. Reporters for the LA Times and the San Jose Mercury News provided the most egregious examples of outright misleading and dishonest reporting about the project, with the Mercury News even going so far as to say that a project that could create tens of thousands of jobs each year for 20 years was somehow a bad thing for California. Apparently the Mercury News likes an unemployment rate of 11% and thinks a prolonged recession for California is a positive thing to embrace.
With a few notable exceptions like the Sacramento and Fresno Bee and the editorial pages of the LA Times, the media has made its choice – to defend the failed status quo and to fight change with everything they’ve got. This is in part a consequence of their strange decision to target a demographic of people between ages 45 and 70. By writing off young people, providing articles biased against their interests, these newspapers have doomed themselves to eventual extinction. That’s their choice, but the effect on politics is that many in the media are now against us too, and are willing to ignore facts and evidence in pursuit of their political goals.
But it should also be clear that 2011 was not all bad news for California high speed rail. Governor Jerry Brown mounted a strong and strident defense of the HSR project, indicating that California critics have a big hurdle to jump in their efforts to kill it in the legislature in 2012. He is a crucial ally to have, and HSR advocates should neither underestimate him nor take his support for granted.
For HSR advocates, the lesson of 2011 is clear: the project will rise or fall not on merits and not on facts, but on politics. Many HSR advocates come from an engineering or planning background. Understandably, they want to win arguments on the basis of facts and evidence. But the bitter truth is that those things no longer count in either American politics or even the pages of newspapers in Los Angeles and San José. Instead, it’s all about underlying values, beliefs, and ideologies.
We know from 2008 – and again from 2010 – that Californians do not want to remain stuck in a flawed and failed status quo, and that they will continue to choose a better future instead. The problem is that many HSR advocates have been beaten down by the relentless drumbeat of criticism. And that’s precisely how such criticism is intended to work. A Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt campaign is targeted not only at moderates, but is also designed to undermine the will of advocates to continue supporting the target of the criticism.
HSR advocates remain in a strong position. The public still likes the project, a limited Field Poll question notwithstanding. The public sees the underlying reasons for the project and knows those reasons aren’t going away. Gas prices are still near $4 per gallon. The climate is still getting hotter. The state is still in recession. And desire for passenger rail is still strong.
Advocates are facing a tough situation. But they should not underestimate the support they still have, or the ability to mobilize it to defend the project in 2012. To retreat into a bunker mentality or to give up entirely would be to quit prematurely even when they are in the stronger position.
They should take a lesson from Europe in 1939. After World War II was declared, the French army had a significant numerical advantage over the German army on the western front. French forces even began moving into the Saarland in September 1939, meeting little opposition along the way. German forces were not in a good position to resist and with their best troops engaged in the invasion of Poland, they would have had a hard time fighting and winning a two-front war.
But the French did not press their advantage. They had begun to believe the criticisms leveled at their fighting capabilities. French generals did not believe a conscript army could break the German defenses, even though the French had much greater numbers. Their military doctrines at the time held that defense was the only sensible posture to take against the Germans, and that the Maginot Line would provide all the protection they needed.
As it turned out, the French attitude was not defensive but weak. By hiding in their bunkers they were helpless as the German blitzkrieg went around them in May 1940, collapsing the French position and forcing France into a humiliating surrender and four years of brutal occupation. Had they attacked in the fall of 1939, they might well have forced an end to the war six years early, and saved millions of lives in the process.
The point is that they had an advantage but had begun to doubt their ability to use it effectively, sowing the seeds of ruin. This is a classic political lesson and one that HSR advocates would do well to consider.
We still have supporters in Sacramento and DC. Governor Brown and President Obama are two of the most important. But even they will be reluctant to fight on our behalf if we give in to fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
High speed rail will be built in California. The only question is when. The underlying reasons of a growing population, inability to afford costly oil prices, a need for energy independence, and fast growing demand for passenger rail make high speed rail inevitable. But that could be delayed by 5, 10, even 20 years. California literally cannot afford to wait. We know the cost of doing nothing is not zero.
Now is the time for HSR advocates to rally to the project’s defense. If this project dies, it won’t come back anytime in the near future. When it does, it will be even more costly than it is today. And California will have suffered greatly in its absence.
More importantly, if HSR were to be killed or even delayed, it would open the floodgates to further attacks on other important elements of building a better future. The people who oppose HSR are not simply going to go away if they win this battle. They will turn their guns on other mass transit projects, on green energy and green jobs, on efforts to improve our schools and health care, and on efforts to solve the state’s budget and economic crisis. These opponents are not motivated by factual concerns with the project, but by a visceral hatred of anything that is different from the 20th century way of life they were taught as kids was the Greatest Thing Ever. Giving them a victory on HSR will simply embolden them to demand more victories at greater cost.
HSR is a microcosm of the battle for California’s future. It is a battle we cannot afford to lose.
Tomorrow: A look ahead at HSR in 2012.