Bad Political Analysis Makes for Bad HSR Criticism

Jul 14th, 2014 | Posted by

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.

What Happened When an HSR Supporter Went to the Central Valley?

Jul 9th, 2014 | Posted by

James Fallows is a nationally prominent writer for The Atlantic. He’s also a fan of high speed rail, having gotten to know it well when living in China. Last year, when writing about Governor Jerry Brown, Fallows mentioned Brown’s work on HSR and his own support of the project.

Fallows didn’t leave it there. In the last year he’s been doing a lot of research into high speed rail, including several trips to the Central Valley. So what was the result?

I’ll let Fallows tell you in his own words:

As I’ve read and interviewed over the past year, including on reporting trips to California’s Central Valley, I’ve become more strongly in favor of the plan, and supportive of the Brown Administration’s determination to stick with it. In installments to come I’ll spell out further pros and cons of the effort, and why the pros seem more compelling.

Unlike many California-based reporters, Fallows has plenty of experience with HSR, and therefore he’s not inclined to see it as some exotic weird thing but as a normal piece of modern infrastructure. Instead he looks at the evidence and discovers, lo and behold, it’s an even better idea than he thought:

For the meantime, here are three analyses worth a serious read:

• An economic impact analysis prepared by the Parsons Brinckerhoff firm for the High-Speed Rail Authority two years ago, which looked into likely effects on regional development, sprawl, commuting times, pollution, and so on.

An analysis by law school teams from UCLA and Berkeley, which concentrated on the project’s effects in the poorest and most polluted part of the state, the central San Joaquin Valley.

• A benefit-cost analysis by Cambridge Systematics, of the “net present value” of a California high-speed rail system. (NPV is a standard way of comparing long-term costs and benefits.) It had charts like these on the likely longer-term benefits of the project, and said that the costs would be significantly less.

Fallows’ post also includes several maps, many of which emphasize the importance of reducing air pollution in the Central Valley. That’s a point this blog has made often and I’m glad to see it getting a broader audience.

And best of all, this is just the first installment in a series Fallows and The Atlantic are rolling out on California high speed rail. So look for more in depth discussion of the project there. I’m glad that they’re covering this, and bringing some light where we’ve sorely needed it.

Will Democrats Undermine Cap-and-Trade?

Jul 6th, 2014 | Posted by

California Democrats just adopted a budget that includes ambitious spending plans for cap-and-trade revenues. That’s as it should be. But you’d think Democrats would be a bit more cautious before they go undercutting the source of those funds.

That is what 16 Democrats are proposing to do. They recently wrote to the California Air Resources Board to demand that CARB delay the rule requiring energy retailers – including gas stations – to buy carbon permits.

Now Assemblymember Henry T. Perea of Fresno is proposing a bill that would delay the rule by three years:

Assembly Bill 69 by Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, would delay for three years a rule requiring the energy industry to purchase permits for transportation fuels. Lawmakers and critics have been warning for months about a resulting price bump….

But the coming inclusion of transportation fuel into the program is threatening to push gas prices up, prompting alarm from moderate Democrats. In a show of broad discontent, 16 Democrats last week sent a letter to the Air Resources Board urging the air quality regulator to delay implementing the new rule. Despite the complaint, all but one of them voted to spend the money the rule is expected to generate.

Perea said he still supports AB 32′s overarching goal of reducing emissions but does not believe consumers have been adequately prepared.

“What we’re really trying to do on this is create a public discussion, because I’m not sure the public is aware of cap and trade and what it’s going to do to their pocketbooks,” Perea said.

Perea is a strong supporter of high speed rail, so I’m surprised to see him take this position. If fuels are excluded from cap-and-trade, that means less money for HSR and other crucial transportation projects.

I understand that these Democrats believe there is political risk in letting this rule go forward, that Republicans will blame them for a gas price increase. There are two responses to this.

First, Republicans will blame Democrats for breathing. Democrats never win when they let Republicans dictate their behavior. Democrats do win when they refuse to worry about what the GOP will say about them and instead move ahead with good policies that benefit a lot of people.

Second, gas prices rise and fall a lot these days. They’re spiky. Right now gas prices are about $4.13 a gallon, which is below the $4.50 range that we saw in 2008. Those numbers will fall as the summer wears on, all the way to winter, when they’ll start rising again. The public won’t notice a cap-and-trade related increase.

Yes, some members of the public who listen to right-wing talk radio and watch Fox News will attribute a spring increase to cap-and-trade. But they weren’t voting for Democrats anyway. The Democratic base won’t reward politicians who try to weaken AB 32, especially after voters in 2010 resoundingly rejected both a ballot proposition and a gubernatorial candidate that pledged to delay the entire cap-and-trade system.

There’s no good reason to undermine cap-and-trade, and certainly no reason to freak out about its effect on gas prices. If anything cap-and-trade and the projects it funds are the best way to help people deal with rising gas prices, by funding the alternatives they will need to get around affordably.

CHSRA To Accelerate Burbank-Palmdale Segment

Jul 1st, 2014 | Posted by

Last week the Federal Railroad Administration issues its Record of Decision allowing the Fresno to Bakersfield high speed rail segment to proceed to construction.

That news was expected and is obviously welcome. This week we’re also getting confirmation of news that was expected and is, I hope, welcome: the California High Speed Rail Authority is accelerating the Burbank-Palmdale segment:

IIn a strategic shift to secure new funding for California’s bullet train project, state officials intend to accelerate their plans to build a Los Angeles County section of the $68-billion system.

High-speed rail officials said they want to start a segment between Burbank and Palmdale in the next several years as they continue working on a 130-mile stretch of the line in the Central Valley. The revised approach could be formally adopted by the rail board as early as next month.

Vartabedian’s article doesn’t address some crucial questions about this move, including how it would affect construction of the aforementioned Fresno-Bakersfield segment. Nor does it answer where exactly the $13 billion in funds would come from, though one could borrow against future cap-and-trade revenues for it.

Personally I’d rather see construction happen on the missing link from Bakersfield to Palmdale, but you know me, I’ll support construction on any segment, as long as it’s actually bullet train tracks.

There was one part of the article that offered some false hope (though it’s surprising that a Vartabedian article offered any hope for HSR at all):

The rail project has encountered stiff opposition from some groups in the Central Valley and Silicon Valley, triggering lawsuits and political compromises on the design of the system. By contrast, there has been little organized opposition in Southern California. No major city has attempted to block or significantly modify the plan. Indeed, Palmdale threatened to sue the state if the project did not include a stop in the city. Los Angeles officials say that the project is yielding a number of benefits for other rail services, including more grade separations and improvements at Union Station.

Yeah, that’s only because there hasn’t yet been a serious effort to build in SoCal yet. Go back through the archives of this blog and one will see opposition from all over the region. I’ve seen people in the Santa Clarita Valley, Burbank, Glendale, LA near the Taylor Yard, Buena Park, Anaheim, Alhambra, and Rosemead – just to name a few – raise concerns. Usually it’s NIMBYs, sometimes it’s elected officials.

But if and when the CHSRA does move ahead with planning and construction on this segment, opposition will come out of the woodwork. Peninsula NIMBYs and Kings County antis will be there to help fund a new round of lawsuits. Rinse and repeat.

Some design notes on this project:

The rail authority has focused on a roughly 40-mile route following the Antelope Valley Freeway, which goes over Soledad Pass at an elevation of 3,225 feet. But Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose district includes most of the area, has asked the rail agency to consider a direct route from Burbank to Palmdale under the mountain range, requiring a tunnel about 15 miles long, according to his staff. The authority has agreed to consider the request.

I’m all for a 15-mile long tunnel, as long as Antonovich can help find the funding. That would probably allow for higher speeds than an alignment along the 14 freeway.

Bullet train planners always expected to place a station in the San Fernando Valley, and Burbank was the most likely choice. Ultimately, the bullet train track would connect Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to the Transbay Terminal transportation hub in central San Francisco. But by stopping construction in Burbank, at least initially, the authority would postpone the more difficult political and engineering task of reaching the heart of Los Angeles.

Specifically, this helps avoid the question of what to do around the Taylor Yard and the LA River State Park, which has been controversial in the past.