MNG Newspapers' transportation blogger Erik N. Nelson - aka the Capricious Commuter - has a pretty good post today, titled I'd Rather Be Riding the Bullet Train. Nelson's support for California high speed rail has been uneven at best, even claiming recently that "HSR isn't viable," so it's welcome to see a member of the corporate media starting to come around on the project:
It’s starting to look like the wind is behind this thing, what with college students campaigning for it all over the state from now until November, when voters will have to decide whether they like the $10 billion bullet train bond measure or not.
I’m still waiting to see what sort of borrowing plan Sacramento will cook up to get us through the current budget crunch. I get the sense, however, that even that won’t stop the bullet train measure from going before voters.
Of course, we should see HSR funding and the state budget deficit as separate issues. The solution to our structural revenue shortfall involves new revenue sources and tax solutions, separate and apart from an infrastructure funding bond. And Californians can look at the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge and realize we built them with bonds in the depth of the Depression - and realize a fiscal and economic crisis is not a sufficient reason alone to not invest in a vital infrastructure project.
The conventional wisdom is that California voters will link HSR to the budget deficit, decide we "can't afford it" and kill the project. This is likely to be the main issue we face as we work to pass HSR - but as the polls show Californians already support HSR in large numbers. Perhaps Californians understand this issue better than they are given credit for - and for many of the reasons Nelson goes on to explain:
Today we live in a world where Iran has gasoline riots, where the law of supply-and-demand has finally kicked in at California gas-n-gos and a lot of us know people who face death daily trying to keep one of our major oil suppliers from falling to pieces.
And a growing number of Californians are almost literally warming to the idea that an investment of tens of billions of dollars might be justified to make a major stab at carbon emissions from the millions of vehicles that sputter up and down I-5 and U.S. 101 between two of America’s megaregions....
But I don’t think it’s just me that pines for an alternative to driving-as-usual. The entire nation is talking about high speed rail. There are communities in Arkansas lobbying for Texas’ high-speed rail to come on by. It seems like every state with a major city has some sort of effort in the works, to say nothing of other nations, such as Morocco and India.
What Nelson is coming to realize is that bond debt is not the beginning and the end of how we evaluate HSR. As gas prices soar, carbon emissions rise and global warming's impacts grow more severe, Californians realize instinctively that the cost of NOT building HSR is going to far outstrip whatever costs we will incur in constructing it.
This is really the crucial point that has to be made again and again and again. The question here is not what HSR's cost alone is - it's instead what the cost of NOT building HSR will be for California. The CHSRA estimates expanding airports and freeways to meet the expected transportation demand that HSR would handle is $80 billion (as of 2004). Already Californians and their business are groaning under the weight of rising fuel prices - some experts think we could hit $200/bbl oil and $6 gas within three years. As these costs are expected to be rising and high for many years to come, California's economy is going to be crippled without a non-oil based alternative. And this doesn't even include the expected costs of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade carbon fees.
And as Californians sit in traffic, watching their hours waste away and their gas costs soar, the promise of high speed rails loom large, as they do for Nelson:
I also had to do some soul searching to report the minutes of my typical commute. I wanted to say two hours, as I normally tell people. But that’s really just the normal train trip. From the time I leave my house to the time I arrive at work is really closer to 2:20.
I’m not going to belabor my reasons for living way out in the Central Valley, other than I did it for love. But I am where I am, and that puts me on one of those pogo sticks, from a couple of perspectives, wearing one of those HSR t-shirts.
Clearly, then, Nelson understands HSR is an excellent investment in our state's economy, energy independence, environment and climate, and quality of life. Hopefully Nelson will continue to see the value of HSR and properly understand its financing and how it compares to our other options - and let's hope that others in the corporate media follow his lead.