Yet Another Strong Defense of HSR From the LA Times Editorial Board
One of the most important signs that the California high speed rail project is still viable is that its supporters remain, well, supportive. Among them is the Los Angeles Times, whose editorial board came out today with a very strong editorial backing the project. They refer to the Peer Review Report and other “expert analysis” and explain why the project still ought to be backed anyway:
The trouble with this kind of expert analysis, though, is that it seldom takes politics into account. Planners didn’t have much choice but to place the initial segment where they did, because to qualify for federal stimulus money they had to guarantee that construction would begin quickly, and the Central Valley portion was thought to be the only part of the line that would be ready to meet Washington’s deadline. No source of future funding, such as a higher gasoline tax, has been proposed because the economy is rotten and voters would be unlikely to approve it right now. So does that mean the whole thing should be scrapped?
As they explain, the answer is clearly “no,” but their explanation of the politics matters a lot here. I know that the more technical-minded folks out there get driven crazy by these political factors, but there has yet to be a human society without politics of some kind. And so far, in my view, the political factors have not compromised the value, benefits, or operational sense of the HSR project.
The LA Times continues in their defense of the project, making some interesting comparisons that aren’t exactly the first ones that come to my mind – but then again, maybe comparisons to the Interstates, the California Aqueduct, Shasta and Boulder Dams, and the Bay bridges are getting old:
The project’s current political ills remind us of the firestorm that erupted over L.A.’s subway, when sinkholes appeared on Hollywood Boulevard, construction mismanagement led to cost overruns, and voters became so disillusioned with subways that they approved a measure in 1998 forbidding the expenditure of county sales tax money to pay for them ever again. A decade later, they realized how shortsighted they had been; failure to complete a subway to the sea contributed to worsening gridlock on the Westside, and the subway had such clear benefits for riders that its construction troubles were largely forgotten. The result: County voters approved a new measure in 2008 to raise the sales tax to pay for, among other things, more subway construction.
Well, OK, this comparison is actually a pretty good one. Even after voters had approved Metro Rail in 1980, there was a great deal of debate about whether it was a good solution for a famously car-dependent metropolis. As construction began, as sinkholes appeared, and as stores exploded momentum began to halt. Even after the first segments of rail opened in 1993, controversy led to the infamous 1998 vote. Today, support for rail is virtually unanimous in LA County, with only a few scattered groups of NIMBYs and deniers left to try and hold back the pro-rail tide.
Of course, we hope HSR won’t face the same kind of problems that plagued the Wilshire subway (and one way to ensure it doesn’t – build fewer tunnels in urban areas!). But as we found with Metro Rail, delays don’t solve anything. They just drive the price up and generate greater costs and inconveniences in the short term.
One of the common comparisons for HSR is to Boston’s Big Dig. Normally it’s a derisive comparison meant to signify that HSR would be some sort of “boondoggle.” But the Times recognizes that, on the whole, the Big Dig has been a boon for Boston:
The same phenomenon is already happening in Boston, home of the nation’s most expensive transportation project. The Big Dig highway tunneling scheme was a political catastrophe a few years ago, what with mistakes that prompted severe delays and caused the price tag to skyrocket. Although the Big Dig is nobody’s idea of the right way to build infrastructure, Bostonians are now reveling in a downtown park built on what used to be an expressway, and a tangled traffic mess has been unsnarled. In a few more years, the headaches will probably have been forgotten.
They’re certainly right about the big picture. And one of the reasons for the Big Dig’s high costs was poor planning – constant delays and politically-motivated changes to the design being the main culprits.
The Times even reaches back into ancient history:
Worthwhile things seldom come without cost or sacrifice. That was as true in ancient times as it is now; pharaoh Sneferu, builder of Egypt’s first pyramids, had to try three times before he got it right, with the first two either collapsing under their own weight or leaning precipitously. But who remembers that now? Not many people have heard of Sneferu, but his pyramids and those of his successors are wonders of the world.
Well, at least we can be assured that California’s HSR system won’t suffer the same fate, given that HSR has been built countless times around the globe. And rather than being built by slave labor, it will be built by well-paid, unionized workers, providing a significant economic boost to a state that could really use it.
Their conclusion is excellent:
The point is, you can take the long view or the short view toward the bullet train. The expert panels are taking a short view; we prefer the long. In the end, if Californians have the patience and the political will to stick with it, they’ll have a project with extraordinary environmental, economic and transportation benefits. If they don’t, they’ll have worsening congestion, rising pollution and soaring transit expenses as gasoline prices continue their inevitable rise. We like the first vision of the future better.
All in all, another solid and strong op-ed from a newspaper that has been a key supporter of the project since at least 2008.
At least, their editorial pages have been supportive. Maybe one of them can have a talk with their HSR reporter, Ralph Vartabedian, the shockingly anti-HSR biased reporter who is using the LA Times’ pages to spin misleading stories and sow misinformation about the project. Their reporting shouldn’t have to follow the dictates of the editorial pages, of course, but their reporting should also be honest, focused on facts and evidence, and not characterized by a clear and obvious bias. That’s not happening right now, and it’s a serious problem for the LA Times.