High Speed Rail’s Not Dead Yet
As I read the reaction today to the recent ruling on California high speed rail, one thing kept coming to mind:
It’s quite fitting if you think about it. Someone insists something is dead. That thing isn’t actually dead. But rather than accept that reality, someone decides to kill the thing so that it fits their pre-existing belief.
That’s the situation we face now with California high speed rail. The current HSR project can continue forward exactly as planned, same route and everything, but it will likely need to find more non-federal funding. The HSR project’s critics want to see it as being dead either because they oppose HSR or because they don’t like this particular routing. Since the current HSR project remains very much alive, however, they’re going to have to work to kill it.
In comments on this blog as well as articles elsewhere, project critics are already calling for substantial changes. Some want an express train from SF to LA, bypassing all other cities along the way. Others want to revisit the now-ancient Altamont versus Pacheco debate. Still others want to revisit the Tejon versus Tehachapi debate. Peninsula NIMBYs in particular want that because they feel they’re closer than ever to their long-held goal of pushing bullet trains out of Menlo Park, Atherton, and Palo Alto. And of course there are those who just want HSR dead no matter what, whether because they oppose it outright or because they’d rather use the money to upgrade existing passenger trains.
It’s entirely possible that those settled questions could be reopened. But doing so will do nothing to address the issues Judge Kenny raised in yesterday’s rulings, because those issues have nothing whatsoever to do with the pet issues of the common HSR critics.
To understand that, we need to take a few steps back to see the whole picture.
The United States is facing a prolonged economic, environmental, and energy crisis. The crash of 2008 and the subsequent weak economy, with massive inequality and stagnant growth, took place because we had spent 30 years trying to ignore those crises.
Solving those crises requires our nation to begin building sustainable infrastructure powered by renewable electricity wherever possible as a substitute for anything powered by fossil fuels. Doing so is necessary if we are to avoid economic catastrophe as well as the devastation that a warming climate will cause.
In 2008 and 2009 it looked like we were going to step up as a country and address those crises. We got a little ways down that path. In California, some NIMBYs on the Peninsula and then in Kings County began pushing back and trying to throw up obstacles to stop the project.
But the biggest obstacle came in November 2010 when the Tea Party seized control of the US House of Representatives and promptly decided to halt all funding for any effort to address those crises. They’ve gone further, of course, working to defund the cornerstones of American civilization, from food stamps to national parks to airport operations.
The people in charge of the California HSR project in 2008 and 2009 made a reasonable decision at the time to plan on the availability of federal funds. The Democratic House and Senate were talking about $50 billion for high speed rail as part of a new transportation bill, and at least $1.5 billion a year as part of general appropriations. Both would have easily covered the expected federal contribution to California HSR over the course of 20 to 30 years.
Those funds are never going to be approved as long as Tea Party Republicans control the House. And it’s important to understand why. Those politicians aren’t upset at the specific details of this HSR project. They wouldn’t suddenly offer money if Altamont were chosen over Pacheco, or if the Central Valley cities were bypassed. No, they are deeply ideologically opposed to funding passenger rail, whether it’s high speed or not. Hell, some Tea Party members of Congress are talking about eliminating federal funding for transportation entirely.
So even if California were to suddenly decide to reopen the thorny yet settled questions of basic route alignment, it won’t do a thing to solve the underlying problem: how to backfill for the lost federal contribution. Of course, Democrats could retake the House in November 2014 and put an end to this uncertainty, but we should be prepared for the Tea Party to be in power until 2023 (when the post-2010 gerrymander is finally undone).
California will have to go its own way in developing HSR funding. I’ll talk more tomorrow about what that might look like. While some HSR critics may see that as an opportunity to revisit the core route questions, there’s plenty of reason to believe that’s unlikely.
First, the political considerations that have prevented a change in course so far will, if anything, only get stronger over time. If California has to fund it alone, Silicon Valley is going to become more important, and they are adamant that San José have a stop on the mainline. They, along with others in the Bay Area, also want to use HSR funds to electrify the entire Caltrain line, not just the line from SF to Redwood City. So that still makes an Altamont alignment unlikely.
Similarly, the San Joaquin Valley and the Antelope Valley are not going to go quietly. Those two regions have become the key swing regions in California politics. It is voters there who will determine whether Democrats have a 2/3 majority or not. That creates ongoing pressure in Sacramento to ensure that Fresno, Bakersfield, and Palmdale keep their stops.
Second, maximizing ridership will become even more important if federal funding can’t be relied upon in the future. That would make it extremely unlikely that bypassing the millions of people living along the Highway 99 corridor is going to be possible. Any private partner is going to be counting on those people as paying customers, and the State of California will be equally as interested in that. Palmdale has a weaker case here, but even then it will be an uphill battle to convince those who control the purse strings to abandon half a million residents.
Third, the NIMBY issues aren’t going away simply by moving the tracks. Residents along the Altamont corridor might well react negatively and demand that their legislators oppose a new route that puts bullet trains in their backyard. And as we saw in Kings County, it didn’t matter which side of Hanford the tracks went, farmers protested anyway.
Fourth, even if another government is willing to help pay for it, whether it’s Japan or China or France in the form of SNCF, they will insist on a state match, meaning the first three points remain operative.
It’s worth mentioning SNCF briefly, since this has come up in the comments. In 2012 it emerged that SNCF supposedly promised to fund California HSR but only if they followed an Altamont alignment and bypassed the San Joaquin Valley cities. It quickly emerged that this “offer” was not quite what it seemed and was riddled with fatal flaws, from a demand for an illegal revenue guarantee to the fact that Prop 1A specifically mentioned that the San Joaquin Valley cities had to be served, both rendering this supposed SNCF plan a clear violation of Prop 1A (which is apparently OK to violate if it suits one’s own route preference).
What Judge Kenny has said, after all, is that Prop 1A is the law and it has to be followed to the letter. I still disagree with his interpretation, but without a new vote of the people there won’t be a new alignment. And if and when there is a new vote of the people to authorize more funding, the political process that produces that measure is still subject to the four points I listed above, making it unlikely there will be any route changes.
It’s entirely normal for people who didn’t like this or that aspect of the current California HSR project to see Judge Kenny’s rulings as an opportunity to bash the project over the head and throw it on the wheelbarrow. But going back to the drawing board doesn’t solve the funding questions and doesn’t ameliorate the NIMBY opposition (it just means different NIMBYs will become opposed).
No, the only realistic and sensible path forward is to stick with the current HSR plan and figure out how to fund it. After all, it is a good plan. The Authority hasn’t failed through any fault of its own. If Congress had delivered funding Judge Kenny would likely not have made this ruling. The California HSR project’s ridership projections remain sound, its route choice is reasonable, and after all, it’s far along in the environmental review process. Scrapping it and starting over could mean another decade of planning before we get to this point again.
I’m not convinced we have that much time to waste. Our economic, energy, and environmental crises are continuing to get worse, as much as we try to ignore them. We need solutions to the actual challenges the HSR project now faces. Tomorrow, we’ll talk more about what those look like.