Will the LA Times Ever Report Honestly on HSR?
The Los Angeles Times editorial board is a solidly pro-high speed rail group, but their reporting on the project is a different matter entirely. While an editorial board is free to take whatever position they want to on any issue, the articles written by reporters are supposed to be rooted in facts and free of any obvious biases – or, if biases are present, those should be acknowledged.
That isn’t happening at the LA Times right now, not their HSR coverage. Ever since Ralph Vartabedian took over the beat midway through 2011, the Times’ coverage of the project has shifted away from independent and informative to very profoundly biased against the project. We’ve gone over this before – the myriad ways in which Vartabedian’s stories are repeatedly slanted against the project, rarely ever reporting from a neutral place and rarely ever acknowledging the project’s merits or quoting supporters. Vartabedian checks the journalistic box by getting a quote from California High Speed Rail Authority officials, but in his world it’s the Times versus the Authority, with people like Elizabeth Alexis – one of the state’s most prominent opponents of the high speed rail project – passed off as a neutral analyst.
Vartabedian’s latest smear job tackles the question of the cost of alternatives to high speed rail. The story’s bent is obvious: the Authority is somehow making shit up again, heroes like the City of Burlingame and Elizabeth Alexis (project opponents, but never mentioned as such) call them out, and Vartabedian’s just reporting on what he sees.
Except as always, his reporting is full of flaws and errors, especially errors of omission. For example, his article doesn’t actually discuss whether or not the $170 billion cost figure for expanding freeways and airports cited by the Authority is valid or not. He doesn’t look into projections of freeway usage, construction costs, or inflation factors. He doesn’t total up the list of proposed and desired projects to see whether $170 billion makes sense or not.
Instead he simply is parroting arguments against that figure made by known project opponents. His article is really about whether the Authority should rely on Parsons Brinckerhoff for these numbers or whether they should rely on the rabidly anti-HSR UC Berkeley Institute for Transportation Studies, whose 2010 report on HSR was a deeply flawed product reflecting its own biases.
Here’s the closest Vartabedian gets to talking about the cost of building other transportation infrastructure that HSR could help handle:
Caltrans predicts that traffic on Interstate 5 and California 99 in the Central Valley will double over the next 25 years. But agency officials say they have not scaled back plans to make highway improvements in the state’s agricultural heartland because of the high-speed rail project. Not until the rail system is built and actually reduces traffic on both roads would Caltrans adjust its investment strategy, officials said.
That’s a typical stance of highway planners across the country – they typically refuse to accept that demand for freeway lanes could actually decline, so they won’t adjust their plans until the proof is staring them in the face. Besides, Caltrans can plan to widen I-5 and Highway 99 all they want to – we know the cost of widening 99 alone will be $25 billion, and that’s a 2006 estimate that has surely soared too since that time. I am willing to bet money that Vartabedian will never, ever challenge the wisdom of that project.
And yet this anecdote doesn’t actually shed light on the core question of whether the Authority’s $170 billion figure makes sense. Vartabedian should have looked at the cost estimates for those widening projects, but never did so. Apparently that would have gotten in the way of his anti-HSR bias.
Surely the Times can actually find a reporter willing to look at the facts rather than just pass along quotes from known project opponents. Maybe a letter writing campaign to the Times is needed. Remember, we aren’t asking the Times to be pro-HSR. Instead we’re asking them to do their jobs and report accurately and independently on the project, rather than allow an anti-HSR bias to color every single article with a Ralph Vartabedian byline.