A Melodious Tenor of Optimism
Over at the excellent California Economic Summit blog Niki Woodard argues that there has been a notable shift in the media coverage of the California high speed rail project – that “hostility and doom” has been replaced with “a melodious tenor of optimism”:
Have you noticed that news headlines seem to be taking a friendlier approach to California’s high speed rail system, which is slated to begin construction this summer in the San Joaquin Valley?
Whereas a year ago the buzz about the expensive train system rumbled with hostility and doom, today’s buzz bears a melodious tenor of optimism.
Amtrak California has seen significant rises in ridership. In the last 15 years, ridership has grown 66 percent on Amtrak’s San Joaquin line, which basically overlaps the backbone of the planned high speed rail route.
Editorials around the state, particularly in the Central Valley, are using such data to rationalize support for high speed rail. “Figures for Amtrak and passenger rail service on the San Joaquin line — from Bakersfield to Sacramento — indicate that ridership in the valley is increasing, a welcome sign for supporters of high-speed rail,” wrote the Bakersfield Californian on March 7, 2013.
I’ve been at this blog for five years now (our fifth anniversary passed last Wednesday) so I may be a bit jaded, which is why when I first read that I thought “huh? That doesn’t seem right to me.”
But as I thought more about her post this afternoon, I find myself in agreement. Doom and gloom is by no means gone from the media, especially if you turn on Fox 11 news in Southern California. Yet that is outweighed by coverage that increasingly treats the high speed rail project not as some unfamiliar and risky novelty, but as a fairly typical infrastructure project that is going to be built while still dealing with the usual issues any major project faces.
I would also credit the fine work being done by the California High Speed Rail Authority in recent months to resolve issues that have come up over the years so that the project can be in a strong position to start construction. It starts at the top, with chair Dan Richard and CEO Jeff Morales, but the entire staff has been working hard at everything from settling lawsuits to conducting successful community outreach. Anti-HSR attitudes are still out there, and they’ll never go away completely. But there has been a shift in how this project is being viewed and the Authority’s work is a big part of it.
Another factor is that because the opponents of California HSR lost their last hope of stopping the project when the legislature voted last July to release the bond funds, they have stopped placing negative stories about HSR in the media. For the first half of 2012 Ralph Vartabedian at the LA Times had one or two articles per week detailing this or that supposed failing of the project. Usually his reports were flawed, and they were always biased. But he got fed the information and the framing for those articles by Sacramento insiders who were trying to build public opposition to the project to help them round up votes to deny funding. They lost that battle, and with two of the anti-HSR ringleaders termed out of the State Senate (Joe Simitian and Alan Lowenthal), there’s no one left to continue the fight.
I don’t think we should ever expect HSR to get media coverage that is consistently fair or even positive. The media still likes to treat big government projects as inherently risky and a source for “omg waste!” stories. They also still have a general bias toward treating rail as something that is itself risky and uncertain, even though as Woodard’s post explained, the statistics of high ridership and high public demand for rail in California has become increasingly difficult to ignore.
Once HSR is under construction, the overall tone of critical stories on the project will shift from “this is a bad idea” to “this is being badly executed.” That latter attitude brings its own set of challenges, but is a much better place to be than the former.
All we need now is a different party in control of the US House of Representatives to deliver more federal funding. But even without that, I think it is safe to say that as of now, the worst is behind us in terms of media coverage for California HSR. A lot of work remains to get the project fully built, but that’s the fun part. Really.