How Are California Voters Like Gilded Age Robber Barons?
The California High Speed Rail project was repeatedly backed by the elected representatives of the people of California between 1996 and 2008. And in 2008 the voters themselves gave their approval to the project and $10 billion in bond money.
Yet according to the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters, that makes them the same as Gilded Age Robber Barons who tried to grab land from Kings County farmers in 1880, resulting in a shootout that killed 7 people:
It’s doubtful whether members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, who voted this month to pursue an alternative route through Kings County for a north-south bullet train, have ever heard of the Mussel Slough Tragedy, even though it was a seminal event in the state’s history.
If they had, they might not have done what they did….
Greg Gatzka, a Kings County representative, told the committee that local residents had received “deplorable treatment,” that “impacts (on farmers) are not addressed,” and that CHSRA agents threaten to seize land by eminent domain if owners are not willing to sell….
The parallels between the events leading to the Mussel Slough Tragedy and today’s wrangling over the bullet train are uncanny. They settled the former with guns, while the latter will be fought out in Congress, the Legislature and the courts.
Uncanny parallels? That’s ridiculous. The uncanny parallels are actually to every other transportation project the state of California has built in the last 100 years, nearly all of which required use of private land in some fashion. The best parallel is to the construction of Interstate 5 and the California Aqueduct on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley in the 1960s. That was a new transportation corridor 0 the freeway and aqueduct did not strictly follow Highway 33, and in many places deviates from it. And so it cut through numerous farms, a few of which I would guess were not willing sellers.
The construction of Interstate 5 did not destroy Kings County (or any of the other counties through which it passes). Nobody was shot over it. Even today, as Jarrett Mullen points out in an excellent post, major freeway projects are being proposed in Bakersfield that would cause substantial impacts to homes and yet there’s no sign of the kind of concerns that the HSR proposal has generated.
California High Speed Rail would also be owned by the state of California. Private investors might reap some of the profits, depending on the business model chosen. And while I’m not happy about that, it’s something I’m willing to live with if it helps get the project built, if it is tightly regulated, and if it is done in a way that does not undermine the system’s usefulness. That’s a very different situation than a bunch of railroad barons (including Leland Stanford) who wanted to screw farmers unfairly.
Dan Walters knows California government and politics quite well. He knows the difference between the Mussel Slough Tragedy and infrastructure projects like high speed rail. But since high speed rail is a key piece of building a sustainable 21st century California, he’s opposed to it. That’s his choice, just as it was Californians’ choice in 2008 to get moving and build high speed rail.