Lawsuits Make Bad Public Policy
One of the most important things to remember about the lawsuits that have been filed against the California high speed rail project is that they come not from people who want high speed rail – they are coming from people who oppose the project. The lawsuits represent an end run around the democratic process. This HSR project was approved by voters in November 2008, by their legislators again in July 2012, and the voters returned those legislators to office in November 2012 despite a right-wing effort to use their support for HSR as a reason for voters to defeat those incumbents.
I’m not saying the lawsuits were illegitimate. But they were filed with the express intent to kill HSR. In the case of the Kings County lawsuit that led to an unfavorable ruling from Judge Michael Kenny, the plaintiffs used a deeply cynical strategy of claiming that Prop 1A, which they want repealed, is being violated because Congressional Republicans (including David Valadao, who owns land that would be impacted by the HSR route in Kings County) have denied new federal funds for the project – itself an effort to kill HSR.
This isn’t a failure of HSR planners or supporters. This is an ambush laid by project opponents.
So why should these opponents be able to dictate public policy to the rest of California? That’s the conclusion I take from reading USC Public Policy professor Lisa Schweitzer’s criticism of HSR advocates:
From the beginning, the supporters of the project have overemphasized what damage criticism might do–note their continued flouncing around about the Hyperloop, which is the least of their problems at this point–and underemphasized the possibility that, in managing and using criticisms that arise, voters might still be brought around to understanding–and perhaps event wanting–public infrastructure of this scale and scope. Instead, they pursued assumed the worst of voters–that voters are spoiled brats incapable of signing on to a vision unless it was tarted up with unrealistic promises about how the projects work. I have said it a million times on this blog: I think voters would have been open to persuasion, even if it took longer than supporters wanted. Instead of trusting the democratic process, project supporters did everything they could to subvert it. In politics, William Galston once noted, one does occasionally have the obligation to play hardball. But here? Now, the procedural tide has turned on them, and they will have no choice but to go back to the very voters they have trusted so little–and whose faith in the project they have done much to undermine.
I don’t know which supporters she’s talking about here. She doesn’t name anyone, which I think is a big problem – as someone who spent a lot of time in academia, I know the importance of citing one’s sources, especially when criticisms are being launched.
But I will say this: she’s wrong on the details, and wrong to blame HSR supporters for an ambush laid by people who absolutely do not want to see bullet trains in California despite the votes of the people and of the legislature to build it.
Schweitzer errs in blaming supporters for the way Prop 1A is worded. I did not write AB 3034 (the legislative bill that went onto the ballot as Prop 1A). If I did, it would have looked very different. My Prop 1A would have raised between $30 and $40 billion. My Prop 1A would not have banned operating subsidies. My Prop 1A would not have required full funding for a segment or the whole thing to be identified before construction begins. My Prop 1A would have mandated a 4-track Peninsula rail corridor, and my Prop 1A would have included a streamlined environmental review process.
But I didn’t write Prop 1A. None of us outside advocates wrote it. Many of the more troublesome aspects of Prop 1A, including the ban on operating subsidies and the requirement that full funding be identified, were included as the price of passage in the State Senate, where Republicans like Roy Ashburn were needed to get the 2/3 support a bond measure needs to be placed on the ballot. Those troublesome aspects of Prop 1A, in other words, are there as sops to critics. It’s a classic example of why one should never, ever let public policy be shaped to appease people who oppose that policy in the first place.
In 2008 we went to the voters with the ballot initiative we had, even if it wasn’t the ballot initiative we wanted. I strongly supported Prop 1A and have no regrets whatsoever about doing so. Even with its more annoying aspects, it’s still a good blueprint for building an HSR system in California. It also remains workable – or would, if we didn’t have Congressional Republicans and NIMBYs doing everything they can to defund and destroy the project.
Schweitzer also rips HSR supporters for assuming voters are “spoiled brats” and trying to avoid the democratic process. Again, that description is accurate for HSR critics, not for us supporters, who have had democracy on our side at every turn. But I will note for the record that I have said I would support a new vote on HSR – only if it’s for the purpose of adding more funding to the project. Contrary to what Schweitzer says, HSR supporters very much trust the voters and believe they’ll support more funding if we make the ask.
What we don’t support is letting opponents drive public policy, or shaping our strategy to appease people who do not want to be appeased. Surely Schweitzer knows that it’s bad public policy to let a major piece of infrastructure be undermined and derailed in this manner.