Sunday, March 23, 2008

Capricious Thoughts

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

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?!"


Martin Engel said...

Robert, I enter this debate with some humility and am willing to learn what I don’t yet understand. To that end, I read your Sunday comments carefully.

1. Why “dying print media?” Is it your intent to belittle Capricious Commuter’s comments by denigrating the medium in which he writes? BTW, he also, like you, writes a blog. “typical pattern?” “libertarian gadfly?” So far, your lesson to a student such as myself is that “Argumentum Ad Hominem” is the way to make your point.

2. Erik Nelson’s (the Capricious Commuter) position regarding high-speed rail is far closer to yours than to mine. You are picking on the wrong guy. It’s me you should be after. I think that the high-speed train project, as presently conceived, sucks. Nonetheless, as a progressive liberal Democrat, I’m at the opposite end of the political spectrum of Libertarianism.

3. You and I agree about “fundamental misunderstanding” in “our state’s media.” I find the media reporting on the HSR as not much more than the parroting of CHSRA press releases and their PowerPoint presentations. What I don’t read in the press is a critical look at the endless understating of development costs and over-representation of performance outcomes, which emanate from the HSR promoters. You need to read Bent Flyvbjerg, an academic researcher, who demonstrates the universal prevalence of this practice. I bet you can yourself find endless examples to validate this point.

4. Unlike you and the rail advocates, I am very uncomfortable with 10 year long- range predictions in a world as volatile as this. We could get into lengthy discussion about commodity markets and oil prices, whether there is such a thing as “peak oil,” the development of energy- efficient transit technologies, the cost of electric power, the ecological/environmental destruction by the construction process, and so on. What will be “extremely expensive” in 2018 is really an open question. What do you suppose that the declining value of the dollar, the skyrocketing costs of construction materials and process, the severe decline in credit, the transfer of wealth to overseas investors, etc. will look like by 2018?

5. You are quite right, that school funding and transportation bond funds don’t come from the same line items on the budget. But, you well know that all municipal bonds are a debt, like a mortgage. The question then becomes, what should the state be borrowing money for. After all, bonds require interest payments to their purchasers and eventually repayment of the loan/principle itself. And, you certainly can’t believe that this train, unlike any other in the history of the US, will generate enough revenue to make those payments. Therefore the money comes from where? You and me. More for trains, less for schools. Two pockets, same pair of pants!

6. Let me for the sake of this discussion agree with you about infrastructure investment as a way of boosting the sagging economy. In that case, why would we not prioritize our transportation needs? Both the Bay Area and contiguous central valley, and the LA Basin and populous points East, are in dire shape regarding urban and regional mass transit. Without great systems in both population centers, we will never get people out of their cars. That’s where the transportation problems are, not on I- 5. The air carriers have not been complaining about air route gridlock. We need to put our money where our problems are, not build a rail system we don’t need. For that matter, a freight rail system might go much farther to achieve the environmental goals we all seek, but that’s another email.

7. Finally, let’s talk costs. They now say $42 billion. We know, based on lots of other prior infrastructure projects, that this is not going to be true. So, let me ask you, is there an upper limit to the costs, in your mind; a point where you yourself will acknowledge that this is, indeed, too expensive? How about twice as much, say $80 billion? How about over $100 billion? Shouldn’t you, as a train promoter, be honest and up-front about this? Right now, the CHSRA is playing a bait-and-switch game with the voters of California. "Hey, folks, it’s only going to cost the state $9.95 billion." Diridon says it won’t cost any additional taxes. Isn’t that $9.95 billion a foot in the door? A camel’s nose in the tent? What do you think?

Robert Cruickshank said...


First, thanks so much for your comments here, and welcome to the site.

I think there is a fundamental difference in how we approach this project. I look at it in a big picture sense - "how does this help meet our state's needs?" And you seem to be focusing in on a narrow "can we afford it?" question - but asking it in a flawed manner.

I say "flawed" because I don't get the sense that you're putting this project in context. At several points you dismiss HSR as either something "we don't need" or as something that won't turn a profit. Neither is true, and nowhere do you seem to acknowledge our other transportation needs and the broader climate and energy crisis.

In point #4, for example, you want to draw me into a debate over whether peak oil exists, whether we can know what our needs will be 10 years from now. I am not going to waste time with that discussion. We wasted 15 years debating whether global warming was real, and I don't care to do the same with peak oil. M. King Hubbert accurately predicted the US peak as early as 1956, and his call of a 2000 peak in global oil seems to have been off by only 7-10 years. Sites like The Oil Drum have been exhaustively researching this for several years now. Peak oil is a fact, and if you choose to not accept it, then there's not much I can say to help.

You answered point #7 in point #4 - of course the final cost will be higher than $42 billion, for reasons you mentioned in #4. But you also want us to assess those costs in isolation from other factors. HSR is necessary for this state to continue as a leading part of the 21st century economy - just as the bay bridges and the State Water Project, both built with bond money, were necessary to the functioning of the 20th century economy.

In point #5 you are leaving out some important details. US intercity trains have rarely turned a profit because they aren't high-speed. In Europe and Japan, however, all their systems DO generate a surplus. Again, you seem to want to assess HSR in California outside of important context.

This lack of context appears again in point #6. There IS a great deal of congestion at CA airports - SFO, OAK, LAX being among the leaders. It has been estimated that relieving this through airport expansion will cost $80 billion - and yes, those numbers will rise with inflation just as the HSR price tag will rise. Even if peak oil turns out to be a myth, HSR is compelling on this basis alone. And of course, since peak oil is very real, it suggests an even more immediate need to build the system before air travel within the state becomes unaffordable or simply not possible due to lack of supply.

But none of that seems likely to convince you, because I get the sense that the costs are really behind this. If you really were a "progressive liberal Democrat" you would agree that government needs to intervene in and help spur the economy from time to time, and that often this will require subsidies that are never repaid or recovered.

The real cost question is "what is the cost of not building HSR?" And that number is likely to be much, much higher than $42 billion. That doesn't mean we should tolerate reckless and wasteful spending on this project, but efficient and effective spending is something that can be produced once this is underway.

That's really what it comes down to. Do we believe HSR is vital or not? If we do, then we will find a way to make it work. The East Span of the Bay Bridge soared beyond the original budget, but we deemed it a necessary project and found a way to make it work. The global HSR experience suggests that cost overruns will not be that bad, and that the benefits will far outweigh the immediate costs.

As to the media, well, the circulation numbers of newspapers are all anyone needs to cite in defense of "dying print media." But more significantly, the Capricious Commuter is a typical example of the journalism-as-stenography school. We both seem to agree that journalism today has stopped asking any hard questions, and stopped looking for truth or real stories, but instead reprints press releases and substitutes conventional wisdom for real analysis. It is intellectual laziness. I'm glad to see you don't share in that, even if we do fundamentally disagree on HSR.

Ultimately Californians will have to decide whether they want to be cheap and bury their heads in the sand, or whether they wish to be wise, aware of the problems facing their state, and show a willingness to invest in solving them.

johnd said...

I feel that it should be noted here that Mr. Martin Engel has a personal interest in this project since his house is on the Caltrain right-of-way , as he notes in his (numerous) train bashing emails to the Menlo Park City council.

Luis D. said...

Wow, this guy "martin engel" spends his days looking up blogs and websites having to do with High Speed Rail and other rail project in California and Bay Area just to BASH on them! Get a life dude! Nobody is taking you seriously and your clogging up blogs with your nonsense! If you don't like trains why don't you move to a place where their aren't any!

sexy said...