Bad Political Analysis Makes for Bad HSR Criticism
James Fallows’s series on California High Speed Rail continues at the Atlantic, where he offers this effort to fairly summarize the critics’ case against the project. Here’s what he sees as the top anti-HSR arguments:
The main claims are:
• A high-speed rail system might be great in theory, but the realities of this plan fall far short.
• It will cost too much, take too long, use up too much land, go to the wrong places, and in the end won’t be fast or convenient enough to do that much good anyway. And, from some people,
• It’s an old-tech band-aid to a problem that really calls for a “disruptive”-tech fundamental solution, from self-driving cars to the Elon Musk-style hyperloop.
I agree with this, to a point. These tend to be the surface justifications and rationalizations. There are the underlying criticisms that are less overtly articulated, but animate those above objections:
• NIMBYism. We’re seeing this in Florida as neighbors fight the All Aboard Florida project, and have seen it with rail projects in LA that everyone agrees are good (like Beverly Hills’ freakout over the Westside Subway). There are a lot of people who just don’t want this thing in their backyard, and as we learned on the Peninsula in 2009, they are willing to do whatever it takes to torpedo HSR.
• Anti-rail attitudes. You can see this driving each of the three points Fallows cites above, an attitude that rail is either an inherently bad idea or not something that can ever succeed in California. As Fallows noted when he started his series, California HSR resembles closely the systems he used in China and has seen elsewhere. All the evidence so far has shown that California’s system will have the same success as seen in China, in Spain, in France, and elsewhere. But for those who are just ideologically opposed to rail, nothing will convince them until the system is already up and running.
Then there’s another category of criticism, which is really best described as concern trolling. It’s from folks who say they support HSR but think that the way this project is being built will somehow undermine its fortunes with the people of California.
So far the polls indicate that isn’t happening, as PPIC found in March that a majority of Californians support high speed rail. But this type of anti-HSR attitude persists. Fallows posted a long excerpt from one person making this kind of criticism:
I am very supportive of a high speed rail network in theory; very few people I have talked to are not. Driving between Los Angeles and San Francisco is a good 8 hours, while by plane it is a 45-minute hop, plus the two hours and massive frustrations of the airport; neither option is optimal. People already commute two hours one way between the Central Valley and the Bay Area, daily. Outside of the reflexively anti-government types who would oppose any state project, most people can see the attraction of the idea.
However, the actual execution of the high-speed rail plan is what has gone and lost my support. While a high speed land connection between Los Angeles and San Francisco would certainly make money, the high initial investment is obvious. Shorter segments between San Francisco and Sacramento, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, or even Los Angeles and San Diego would make money almost immediately. However, none of those things is what they are building. Instead, they are building the line between Bakersfield and Merced, with the further extensions only in later phases at undetermined dates.
The line between these two cities would be, basically, useless; to attempt a simile to another part of the country, this would be as if the Acela didn’t go between DC and Boston, just between Trenton and Newark. Its actually even worse, since unlike Trenton and Newark, Bakersfield, Fresno, etc. have no public transit to speak of, and so the train would only be useful for stranding you at the train station. However, while they are still planning and seeking funding for the further portions, this is all the line will be, and knowing California, this situation will last for years (it’s already taken us six to even get to this point).
Building this section first, without connecting any major population center to any other, therefore seems like an investment with no hope of a return. In the meantime, the people already opposed to the system (which are particularly numerous in the Central Valley) will be joined by those opposed to government waste in general, who will point to a train that has already cost billions of dollars and still connects nowhere to nowhere, and say, “enough, pull the plug, this has been a waste of money.” Once that happens, the political realist in me has to acknowledge that there is no way promises of “but if we extended it further, it would actually work” would get any traction, and the idea would be dead. As I have remarked with my friends, only half-jokingly, if they wanted to kill the idea of high speed rail in California forever, they couldn’t have gone about it much better than this.
To this pessimistic political outlook, I could also add the accusations of mismanagement of the funds already spent, and the compromises that are watering down the project as it moves along (portions of the line are now not even going to be high-speed), but those are already documented by actual journalists. My main feeling, though, is that if they wanted this to work, they should have gone about it any other way than what they have.
This person bought the BS “train to nowhere” claim hook, line, and sinker. He or she makes repeated references to “political reality” and assumes that the decision to build in the Central Valley first has badly eroded public support for the system.
But there’s no evidence at all to back up this claim. In fact, the evidence suggests that the decision to start in the Valley has done nothing at all to dent public support for HSR, given that the level of public support found in the PPIC poll is about the same as what we saw on election day in November 2008.
Californians understand how phasing works, and they understand that nobody is actually talking about building HSR in the Valley alone and doing nothing else ever to connect it to the coasts. This person sets up a strawman, and Californians have already seen right through it.
His or her history of the project is also flawed, leaving out the fact that when the decision was made in 2010 to start in the middle and build outward, long-term federal funding still looked like a strong possibility. He or she makes it sound instead like the state and federal governments decided in 2010 to start in the middle and shrug their shoulders about what comes next, which is not at all an accurate statement about what happened.
In fact, just this month the state legislature began discussing how to get the tracks to the coast, as Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León has started talking about how to build from Palmdale to Burbank. The state legislature also came up with billions in new funding for HSR via cap-and-trade revenues, which will help ensure that the tracks being built in the Valley aren’t stranded.
Uninformed, inaccurate political analysis tends isn’t going to help us get high speed rail built any faster.