The San Francisco Chronicle weighs in today on the HSR proposal with an editorial that makes some very good points as well as some real headscratchers. Given how important this project is to San Francisco, the Chronicle's support is welcome, but it would be nice if they showed a better grasp of the project.
Legislators were waiting for the perfect storm of budget solvency and economic growth, thinking that this might help the bond pass. Apparently they've realized that California's budget woes aren't going to get better before gas prices and global warming get worse: The bond measure should finally be on the ballot this November.
It's good that the Chronicle agrees the bond measure should be on the ballot, but let's be clear why it wasn't on the ballot in 2004 or 2006 - Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't want it there, as it would have competed with his other bond priorities. If the governor had shown better leadership perhaps HSR bonds could have been enfolded within the 2006 infrastructure bonds - few seem to have batted an eye at $42 billion in bonds then, so what's another $10 billion going to hurt?
Our skepticism about the rail measure remains. It's going to be an extraordinarily expensive project, with costs projected to be at least $40 billion. If it's not done right, it could be both environmentally degrading (it will pass through ecologically sensitive areas) and financially crippling (cost overruns seem inevitable) for the state of California. There have been successful examples of government-run high-speed rail projects (France), but there have been unsuccessful examples too (Japan).
Unfortunately the Chronicle editorial doesn't note the far larger expense of doing nothing. $80 billion in airport and freeway expansion to handle the expected demand isn't exactly a better use of money than a $10 billion bond. The environmental damage from HSR construction is likely overstated (especially if the ROW hews close to Highway 152 in the Los Banos region, by far the most tricky part of the line). And while the Japanese Shinkansen system has gone through some reorganizations, it has been successfully operating HSR for over 40 years. Moreover, there are MANY more government-run HSR success stories - Spain, Germany, and Taiwan all have extremely successful government-run systems.
The high stakes probably account for a great deal of the legislators' hesitation: No one wants to be responsible for a boondoggle. Still, with a troubled national airline system, $4-a-gallon gas, and even President Bush offering goals to combat climate change, the rail system is a risk we can't afford to not take.
All of this is dead-on. While I do not believe HSR is nearly as risky as the Chronicle editors do, they are absolutely right that we cannot afford to not build this system. They do understand that rising gas prices are calling into question our state's reliance on freeways and airlines for intrastate travel - and the airlines are becoming more and more troubled (they're now skimping on fuel). And the Chronicle, unlike nearly every other media outlet that has recently assessed HSR, mentions climate change as a reason to build HSR. I have begun to wonder if HSR's critics even believe in global warming, so it's welcome to see one of the state's leading newspapers making the obvious link between HSR and action on the climate.
The editorial goes on to discuss Cathleen Galgani's bill that would enable more public-private partnerships, something the editorial authors believe is necessary to mitigate high costs:
Forty billion dollars would be a lot to ask from California taxpayers in good times; in a recession it doesn't seem politically feasible.
Except that nobody is asking California taxpayers for $40 billion. Instead the bond plan is for $10 billion, and most of the remaining balance will likely be coming from the federal government, with private investors helping to finish out the overall project cost. Cost overruns are inevitable, especially in this era of rampant inflation and a collapsing dollar - but California voters are only being asked to pony up a quarter of the overall cost. Seems like a good deal to me.
The editorial closes on this excellent note:
And California has already spent enough time hesitating over the rail system - we urge the governor to work with the Legislature to make the current proposal the best that it can be for the environment, the taxpayers, and those who will ride the rail in the future.
I could not agree more strongly. The more we delay, the higher the cost will become, and the longer our state will be shackled to an obsolete and economically ruinous oil-based transportation system.