Accuracy Matters for HSR’s Future
In today’s LA Times a USC public policy professor, Lisa Schweitzer, offers three suggestions for “getting California’s bullet train back on track”. It’s a worthwhile discussion to have, but her three points are flawed in that they do not accurately state the situation facing HSR – and therefore make it difficult to embrace these solutions as anything useful.
Don’t underestimate how betrayed many California voters feel over the project’s revised cost estimates.
When Proposition 1A appeared on the 2008 ballot, the 500-plus-mile rail line’s estimated cost was $32 billion. Shortly after voters approved it, the projected cost jumped $10 billion and then skyrocketed another $58 billion. Brown balked at the $100-billion bill, and the project got downscaled to $68 billion.
All that shilly-shallying eroded voter trust. Concessions to lower costs alienated early supporters by backing away from the high-speed design toward a blended system, which involves sharing track with existing services like Caltrain. Give voters the opportunity to approve a new proposal that fixes the flaws — the wonky cost estimates and unrealistic financial plan, to name two — of the original proposition instead of acting like there’s still a mandate to build the system. There isn’t.
Nonsense. Of course there is still a mandate to build the system. Californians did not throw out their legislators in November 2012 for approving the release of bond funds in July 2012, and the Legislature did so after the cost estimates increased. In no race last fall did HSR lead to the defeat of any legislator, despite efforts by Republicans to make it a campaign issue.
More to the point, this “suggestion” suffers from a biased frame that distorts what actually happened. Why did the cost estimates change? Isn’t that important to understanding how to deal with these challenges? The cost estimates rose first because the Authority was told by the federal government to change their accounting to “year of expenditure” dollars, meaning they had to price in possible inflation. Then, as communities up and down the route demanded expensive alignments, the cost soared. As detailed engineering was done, true costs became revealed as well.
And yes, the Blended Plan was adopted to help reduce costs. And it has alienated some initial supporters, though many of us are still on board. So is she suggesting that the Blended Plan be scrapped despite its lower cost? Which is it?
Stop acting like bullet trains shouldn’t have to comply with pesky environmental laws.
Brown’s attempts to exempt the project from environmental review convey, intended or not, state-level indifference to the communities in the construction zones. The federal review process in the National Environmental Quality Act is no picnic. It requires the state to consider community effects in the rail project’s assessment, not just the physical environmental impact.
People dealing with construction day after day and those forced to relocate face life-altering changes. They deserve to have the state obey both the spirit and the letter of laws designed to protect individuals from state coercion. Lawmakers passed environmental review regimes precisely because state agencies rushed through building urban freeways from the 1940s to the 1970s, mostly affecting poor, black neighborhoods. Those actions contributed to riots in Los Angeles and decades of impoverishment in these communities. We can do better than that, and we should.
Brown and Morales should embrace the environmental review process as an opportunity to work with the affected communities. The project has always included provisions for local employment. These and other benefits for the locals should be highlighted. The project should help make things better — right now, not 20 years from now — in the places where the bulldozers are headed.
To my knowledge neither the governor nor the CHSRA CEO have argued that HSR should be exempted from environmental review, so this is a deeply misleading and unfair charge. Governor Brown has argued for streamlining the reviews – but that any such streamlining should be done in a way that preserves actual environmental review.
The concern is that wealthy and privileged people are using CEQA to undermine a project that will deliver desperately needed jobs – right now, not 20 years from now – to these communities despite the fact that HSR will improve the environment by reducing carbon emissions and reducing air pollution. Schweitzer completely ignores both climate change and asthma caused by automobile emissions here, a bizarre way of looking at environmental quality concerns. If environmental justice is the concern, and it ought to be, then surely air pollution and carbon emissions should be central to the discussion.
Stop pretending that the federal government and the private sector are going to pay the bills and instead come up with a realistic, long-term, self-funded financial strategy.
Perhaps the federal government will send more than the $3 billion it has offered, but there is no reason to believe that a deeply polarized Washington is in the mood to add to it. Private-sector investment has supported high-speed rail projects around the world, but usually long after governments have covered the construction costs. A few systems operate well enough to pay back their capital costs — as in Japan — but private investors usually withhold investment until the system is built in major travel markets. So don’t expect anyone to pony up money until service in San Francisco and Los Angeles is set to begin.
The sooner politicians and rail officials accept this reality, the sooner voters can decide on the options, whether it means an additional tax referendum or taking money from other state agencies. One nice idea is to use the proceeds from the state’s cap-and-trade auctions for carbon emissions, though available revenue is limited so far.
This suggestion is the least objectionable of the three, yet it still contains flaws. There is in fact every reason to believe that Congress is in the mood to add more HSR funding. The problem is that the House is in its third year of control by a radical group of extremists who oppose most government spending and are willing to watch our civilization collapse in order to suit their Tea Party agenda. We should not pretend that Tea Party control of the House is a permanent situation. It may well be reversed in 2014. And if so, Democrats are very likely to add more HSR funding. How much? Probably not the sum we would like. But to write off Congress is to misread the national political situation.
That being said, with each passing year that the Tea Party extremists control the House, the more important it becomes to develop an alternative funding plan. It is possible for California to fund HSR itself – and the revenue sources used to do so could be augmented to help fund other transportation needs. It may not be an ideal solution, but California needs to begin developing fallback options so that it does not get dragged under by the Tea Party, whose strength comes entirely from outside the state.