Pantograph Trolleypole in the comments on the last post pointed me to The Capricious Commuter's thoughts on high speed rail. This person blogs for the Contra Costa Times, and is very down on our high speed rail plan. His post follows a very typical pattern of the dying print media: pooh-pooh some activists (in this case CALPIRG and their HSR spring break), then lament that government didn't produce perfection, and then dig up some libertarian gadfly who is not representative of public opinion to show how that public supposedly thinks. And ultimately all the post shows is how prevalent fundamental misunderstandings about HSR are in our state's media. The post closes with this:
But as cool as it might be to zip down to Bakersfield at 200 mph, I just can’t see it happening. Passing the $20 billion transportation bond required a unified campaign by the governor and legislative leaders to sell it to voters. In a year when those folks are pleading poverty, it’s just not gonna happen.
In fact, the Sacramento Bee reported yesterday that the HSR bonds currently have 58-32 support. More on this in the next post.
The problem with this framing is it assumes HSR is just some ultra-cool toy that only a few railgeeks and engineers will love. But that ignores some very important context. Taken a look at oil prices lately? Or studied up on peak oil? What that means is by 2018, when the system is slated to open, it is going to be extremely expensive to fly or drive from the Bay Area to LA. The expense may even be prohibitive for most Californians.
Even if one wanted to deny peak oil, the way some used to deny global warming, we are then left with the fact that to handle the expected increase in passengers, we will need to spend nearly $80 billion to expand airports and freeways. HSR serves the same passenger demand for half the cost. Wouldn't that be a smart investment?
I agree that the plan is imperfect. But as anyone who follows mass transit knows, the hardest part of a new system to build is the first line. Once that line is up and running it becomes MUCH easier politically to add new lines and extensions. Oakland may not be on the first line built. But it will likely be on the second or the third.
I do agree that the state budget crisis is going to cause difficulty for the bond vote. But I think he's also totally wrong in his framing of the matter. First, the HSR bonds do not come from the same funding pool as schools. Second, we can stave off the budget cuts to schools with some relatively easy and inexpensive revenue solutions - the only thing stopping this is Republican stubbornness. Third, an economic downturn and a fiscal crisis is actually a GOOD time to build infrastructure - the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges were, after all, built in the depths of the Depression.
We need to stop reacting to the state budget crisis as if paralysis is the only reaction. There is a growing movement and coalition determined to solve our budget shortfall this year. But regardless of how that turns out, we should not let a temporary crisis stop us from building a piece of infrastructure that is absolutely necessary for this state's economic survival in the 21st century. Not building HSR would be like not building the bay bridges or not building the State Water Project. It won't be an easy sell, but it is also a necessary sell.
In any case, this particular blogger doesn't seem to have much understanding of the ins and outs of transit funding, as shown by his rather dismissive and selfish comments on Capitol Corridor ridership (if you want more seats, we need to buy more cars, and the HSR bond would provide $950 million for such purchases). It would be bad enough if this was just some random blogger, but apparently the guy writes for the CC Times. I guess the best reaction is to echo UC Berkeley professor Brad DeLong's famous line, "why oh why can't we have a better press corps?!"