What Texas Reveals About HSR Opposition
When Texas Central announced their high speed rail proposal, they threw more than a little shade at California’s project:
“We are not the traditional state-run railroad,” Robert Eckels, the company’s president and a former Harris County judge, said at a high-speed rail forum in Irving on Tuesday. “This is designed to be a profitable high-speed rail system that will serve the people of these two great cities and in between and, ultimately, the whole state of Texas.”…
If we start taking the federal money, it takes twice as long, costs twice as much,” Eckels said. “My guess is we’d end up pulling the plug on it.”…
The relatively flat, sparsely populated land between North Texas and Houston makes the project more doable than similar plans that have been proposed in the Northeast or California, Eckels said. One approach that could reduce costs considerably is using existing rights of way for freight rail to build the new track. For the system to work, the high-speed trains would have to go over, under or around car and pedestrian traffic and couldn’t cross other tracks, Eckels said.
This was 2012, the height of HSR denial, and you can see Eckels referencing some of the primary attacks on California HSR: it’s inherently flawed because it’s government-funded, it’s not designed to be profitable, Texas’s geography is different so it can be built faster and cheaper.
There are other arguments in the “Texas can do HSR better than California” genre, as this piece from 2014 shows:
1. Both DFW and Houston have relatively compact downtown business areas. You can walk to a lot of the places you need to go, and both downtowns are well served by taxis. Los Angeles is a massive, metastasized sprawl. You can cab around but it’s going to cost you. San Francisco is less spread out, but because of the hills it’s no fun to walk, even short distances. (Houston sprawls with the best of them, but most of the business traffic goes straight downtown.)
2. Interstate 45 in Texas is flat and low density. This would make construction and engineering less complicated and acquisition of land rights much less problematic.
3. Texas isn’t eaten up with environmental zealots. Trust me, as soon as they find an endangered mugwort, the California bullet train will come to a screeching halt while the state conducts 10 years of environmental studies.
Of course, the notion that DFW and Houston are more compact than SF or downtown LA is absurd. Yet surely this author was correct to say that land acquisition and environmental approvals would be easier in Texas, right?
As it turns out, it isn’t. Not only were the attacks on California HSR flawed, so too were the arguments as to why Texas HSR would be done better. In reality both projects are facing the same obstacles, suggesting that there are common elements to HSR opposition across the country. Therefore, California’s project isn’t unique, or badly planned, or poorly run. It was merely the first to encounter these routine obstructions.
Purple City had a good roundup recently of problems that Texas Central has encountered, and the list should sound familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to California HSR:
The initial opposition to the line was spearheaded by a young couple with a small patch of farmland in the path of a high-speed bypass of some curvy BNSF track. This is the most understandable form of NIMBYism, and in response TCR got out in front of the release of the Federal EIS to announce that they preferred the Utility Alignment, a straight shot that would parallel existing pipeline and power transmission easements.
Here’s common obstacle number one: NIMBYism. The above example cites rural Texan NIMBYism, but we also just saw an example of urban Texas NIMBYism. No matter where you propose to build an HSR route in the United States, the people who live near it are guaranteed to freak out and insist the project be moved far away from them.
It’s not just that NIMBYs don’t want it in their backyard. HSR tends to arouse stronger opposition than other forms of infrastructure because it is unfamiliar to most Americans, and this is true in California as well as Texas. They don’t see the project as necessary, they don’t understand its purpose or value, it’s alien and unusual and something they don’t think they’ll ever use.
Further, unlike a freeway which might have an interchange in their area, an HSR line is going to only have a few stops along the entire route. So for a farmer along the HSR line, the project does seem like an intrusion from which they’ll never see any direct benefit. That’s only going to intensify opposition.
However, by this point the opposition had coalesced in the form of HB 1889. Sponsor Will Metcalf says he thinks rail is a waste of money when we need more funding for highways, although he hasn’t stated how canceling a privately-financed railway will accomplish that goal.
This is the second common obstacle: right-wing political opposition. There’s a lot going on here, so I’ll break this obstacle into smaller pieces.
Part of this is the right-wing belief that rail is never a good use of money. Notice that the Republican legislator cited above doesn’t seem to care whether or not the money is public or private. Since at least the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan issued an executive order halting new rail starts and slashed funding for urban rail, opposition to passenger rail has been conservative dogma. You can cite stats at them until you’re blue in the face and it won’t matter, because conservatism is, like most political movements, rooted in values and not facts and figures.
Why are conservatives anti-rail? One reason is because it’s seen as something only urban Democrats want and use, a thing that suburban conservatives are forced to subsidize. There’s all sorts of things factually wrong with that assumption, but again, it matches the movement’s values, so the facts don’t matter as much.
Grist’s David Roberts gets at another aspect of right-wing opposition to efforts to reduce CO2 emissions:
The scale of response necessary to adequately address climate change is utterly outside the ideological frame of reference of the right….
Conservatism seeks to preserve the status quo, which in the U.S. means oil, coal, suburbs, consumerism, and inequality. As I’ve written before, there is no plausible conservative solution to climate change. There is no “small government” way to reduce emissions far enough, fast enough. There’s no “small government” way to build up defenses against the disasters that climate change will bring, or to clean up after them. There’s no way to tackle climate without grappling with oil, coal, suburbs, consumerism, and inequality.
Roberts is not only making an important point here that conservatism is about protecting a suburban, small-government status quo. It is also about protecting a status quo that is dependent on oil. Conservatives think oil dependence is a good thing. They cheered wildly when Sarah Palin said “drill, baby, drill” in response to the 2008 gas price spike. I’m sure there will be a few conservatives and Republicans who post a comment saying they don’t share that view. That’s fine, but such people are in the clear minority on the right.
When it comes to high speed rail – a passenger rail project, popular in Europe, being built in California, backed by liberals like Barack Obama, touted for its benefits for the environment and the climate, intended to help reduce dependence on driving, and seen as threatening to an oil-based sprawl economy – it pushes all the right-wing’s buttons in ways that few other pieces of infrastructure can.
Not all HSR opposition is right-wing. But the right is the political home of HSR opposition, and even self-described Democrats have been cheering on and sometimes working with people like Jeff Denham when they decide he’s their best chance at stopping the HSR route being planned for their backyard.
Overall, based on what happened in California and what is now happening in Texas (itself a replay of the Trans-Texas Corridor fight from a decade ago), we can put together a general theory of HSR opposition: Whenever an HSR project is proposed, regardless of the details of where it will go and who will pay for it, you can expect that people living next to the route as well as right-wingers and Republican elected officials will come out against it.
It would be easy to have a little schadenfreude at the expense of the Texas HSR project, after all the smug attacks they threw at California. But I want to see that project get built just as much as I want California HSR to get built. I hope that the project’s supporters now understand that California HSR didn’t do anything wrong at all, it just ran into the same opposition that Texas is now experiencing.
Unfortunately for Texas, they’re not in as strong a position to overcome that opposition as is California. If the strongest political opposition to HSR comes from the right, that doesn’t hurt California HSR so much since the right has no power in the Golden State. Democrats back HSR and so the project has been able to overcome its obstacles.
NIMBYism is a very strong force in California, but because the state has a strong progressive politics and is governed by Democrats, other concerns – job creation, traffic reduction, climate change action – can and are trumping the NIMBYs. Once again, those countervailing forces don’t exist in Texas, at least not quite as strongly. We only need to remember the fate of the Trans-Texas Corridor to see that.
Finally, governments can persevere in the face of public opposition. That’s both a strength and a weakness of government, for obvious reasons. The private sector, however, is going to have to ask itself whether it’s worth it financially to persevere when opposition continues to organize. That may be another reason why Texas HSR, for all its promise, may yet find it struggles more than has California HSR.
Still, let’s hope it gets built.