HSR Needs to Be Built, Not Restarted
In the wake of Judge Michael Kenny’s ambiguous ruling earlier this month in the anti-HSR lawsuit, project critics and opponents are busy calling for a major revision to the project. State Senator Andy Vidak, recently elected to an open seat in the Central Valley, wants a statewide re-vote on HSR in 2014 to be authorized by the Legislature. That won’t happen. But others are calling for a rethink, including the Hanford Sentinel:
[Dan] Richard is much smoother than his predecessors, but the reality is he’s hawking snake oil by the barrel with a smile and ready handshake….
Which brings us back to [Judge] Kenny’s ruling, which makes clear that it’s time to stop the shenanigans and follow the law.
He really only has one option. He needs to hit the restart button and send this project back to the drawing board.
The Sentinel preceded this conclusion with a long and curious list of charges against the project. The list included:
Private investors have avoided the project like the plague and a more conservative Congress has shut off the federal spending lifeline, leading to legitimate questions about where the money to complete the project will come from. The Legislature and the governor have also looked at short-circuiting the California Environmental Quality Act to make future environmental approvals moot.
A series of conflicts of interest have escalated with the Authority’s key consultant winning a piece of the initial construction contract.
The Authority’s business plans have inflated expected ridership and job creation claims, and the Authority has ridiculed local citizens who have questioned its decisions.
A lot of this is nonsense. Private investors aren’t being asked to step in and help fund yet, so it’s very premature to say that they’re avoiding the project when there is no active solicitation going on. Conservatives in Congress have stopped new funding for now but that funding will resume once the Tea Party is thrown out of power. The Governor and Legislature have looked at reforms to CEQA but not using those reforms to avoid environmental approvals. Instead their goal is to streamline the process without undermining the review. Conflict of interest is a specific criminal charge that isn’t substantiated. And the ridership claims have been vetted by numerous sources.
Ultimately the Sentinel is hoping to use the ruling in the lawsuit to try and derail the project, as are other critics and opponents like Senator Vidak. It should come as no surprise, since critics and opponents have tried to use every other obstacle and hiccup since 2008 as a reason to not build high speed rail.
But the need for high speed rail hasn’t gone away. Gas prices are still high – the statewide average is $3.794/gal, still well above pre-2006 levels. The climate crisis continues to grow worse, with the Rim Fire as just the latest example of the predicted effects on California of a warming climate. Unemployment in the Central Valley remains a serious problem, with Kings County at 12.6% and Fresno at 12.5% as of July 2013. That’s well above the state average of 9.3%. And air quality remains a challenge in the Valley as well, which electric trains will help fix.
Revisiting or restarting the HSR project doesn’t mean there will be a perfect alternative chosen. Every project has its tradeoffs. We could risk billions on trying to build a maglev or even a hyperloop. We could run the trains down Interstate 5 and bypass the Valley cities entirely – an incredibly bad idea that wouldn’t save very much money and cost a lot in lost ridership and revenue, but we could do that too if we liked. Any number of other options could be chosen, but those too would have their price in terms of dollars as well as impacts. Each choice might make someone happy but would make someone else unhappy.
It’s also hard to envision critics suddenly changing their tune. They objected when the cost was pegged at $33 billion in 2008 and it’s unlikely any system connecting SF to LA could ever be built for less. They object when the tracks are routed away from farmland through city centers and object when the tracks are routed away from cities through farmland. They object when the tracks are elevated and object when the tracks are at-grade and object to the cost of below-grade solutions.
HSR critics and opponents are not usually driven by a desire to see a different HSR project. They tend to be driven by a desire to not see HSR at all. It’s not something they believe is important and so they see it as something that is expendable, money they believe is being wasted on something unimportant and that should be redirected to something they like.
Since changes to the project won’t appease critics and opponents, and since they’ll likely never be willing to spend the billions it will take to connect SF to LA with high speed rail, the focus ought to instead be on doing what it takes to get this particular HSR project complete. In the absence of Congressional action, California needs to be finding ways to fund the project itself, or at least reduce the amount of federal funds it seeks in the next few years. Developing those solutions ought to be the focus of attention now, not a futile effort to appease the unappeasable.