If you missed this morning's HSR hour on KQED-FM's Forum, you can get an archived version of the show at this link. It's well worth a listen, although deep insightful discussion was somewhat lacking. Below are my thoughts on the show:
- I had forgotten about Quentin Kopp's force-of-nature personality. Won't make that mistake again. You don't survive decades in San Francisco politics by being soft. Kopp put in an excellent performance, dominating the hour and dealing effectively - I thought - with some of the common, uninformed objections to the HSR plan. There were a few moments where Kopp erred - he claimed that AB 3034 prevented a station from being built between Merced and San José, though as the bill text makes clear it is between Merced and Gilroy that no station can be built. There WILL be a Gilroy station. Also, Kopp didn't correct a caller who worried about where you'd put a rail line at the Grapevine, when in fact it is Tehachapi Pass that will be used for high speed rail.
Those minor points aside, Kopp dealt pretty forcefully with some of the common criticisms. He defended the ridership projections and carbon emissions reduction projections well. He also dealt with criticism and concern over the funding of the project, and rightly noted the importance of there being no organized opposition (yet) to the bond measure. Kopp is a master of process, budgeting, and planning, tenacious as hell and able to get his way. I can see how that may eventually rub people the wrong way, but the CHSRA needs a strong leader, and in Kopp they most certainly have that.
Perhaps most significantly, neither Erik Nelson nor Lee Harrington, the token HSR opponent, were able to rebut Kopp effectively. He dominated the hour, and I daresay, he drank their milkshake.
- Lee Harrington was out of his depth here. His arguments against HSR were incredibly weak and boiled down to his preference, as executive director of the Southern California Leadership Council, that the state's bond capacity be preserved for something like port capacity expansion, freeway widening, airport expansion, that sort of thing. He had no concept of why HSR is needed to keep California moving, and even parroted the discredited "Southwest Airlines offers cheap travel" nonsense. Kopp was especially effective in smacking down that claim, pointing out that the Texas high speed rail project so memorably killed by Southwest and others in the 1990s has been revived, with support from other major airlines. Harrington gave the impression of a man hopelessly stuck in the 20th century, unable to grasp that the basic economy of transportation has undergone a sea change in the last 5 years. Martin Engel would have been a more interesting guest to speak for the HSR critics.
- Erik Nelson, ostensibly there to play the journalistic straightman, in fact wound up giving some key support to Kopp's claims and overall helped make a decent, if imperfect, case for HSR. Unfortunately Nelson also contributed to one of the show's major flaws - an overemphasis on the finances of the HSR plan. Nelson and Michael Krasny both spent a LOT of time discussing the ridership projections, whether HSR works financially in other countries (to his credit Nelson pointed out that in almost every case they do). Nelson argued that most major infrastructure projects run over budget, but made no attempt to explain this far-fetched claim. His only evidence was the LA Red Line subway. It, like the Big Dig, was a massive urban tunneling project, and those projects are very susceptible to cost overruns. The HSR project has very little urban tunneling involved, save for the mile from Fourth and King station in SF to the Transbay Terminal. Building HSR on open land, and tunneling through mountains, are fairly common engineering practices and while some cost overruns are possible, they are not nearly as likely as Nelson made it sound.
I have consistently argued that the HSR project will come in at more than $40 billion when all is said and done - but that most of that will be due to the declining value of the US dollar and global inflation in the cost of construction materials. Nobody on the show appeared to mention these points at all.
More fundamentally, nobody mentioned the cost of NOT building HSR. Everyone seemed to assume that the choice was between spending $40 billion on HSR or $0 on the status quo. This is not only incorrect, but ignorant. The cost of not building HSR is FAR higher - $80 billion for airport and freeway expansion alone, and an even larger economic cost to the state and to voters from soaring gas prices. Nelson did mention the effect of $4/gal gas, but only at the 45' mark.
I got the clear sense that for most of the guests, and for the host as well, the 21st century high speed rail project was being evaluated with obsolete 20th century assumptions. This is a criticism I've leveled at Nelson before but what today's show demonstrated is that this is really a problem with the American media more generally. In their self-appointed role as guardians of public discourse, they have persisted in evaluating our society and its challenges through lenses last refined in the early 1990s. Fifteen years of fundamental change has passed most of them by, to the point where most of the show was spent in a discussion about HSR's finances almost totally divorced from the basic context in which that project is being assessed.
- Overall the show suggested to me how little the public understands about the details of high speed rail. Some callers assumed it would share tracks with freight trains and replicate Amtrak's problems (it won't) or that the construction alone would wreak massive environmental devastation (it won't). The basic facts of the HSR project are not well known, nor are its most compelling arguments - HSR is necessary for our climate, for our economy, and for our transportation needs. If we are to ensure a victory this November, Californians need to properly understand the issues at stake here. I am not confident that their media is going to help in this process.
Unfortunately I was driving between Salinas and Gilroy at the time, and the hills along Highway 101 don't exactly make for good cell phone conversations, otherwise I'd have called in. But that's what the blog is for; continuing discussions and bringing them to a wider audience that understands the world in which we now live, instead of pretending that we still live in 1970.
What are your thoughts on the show? Share them in the comments.
PS: When commenting, please enter a name instead of "anonymous." It can be a pseudonym, the name of your dog, whatever - but pick something aside from anonymous. That'll make it easier for readers to follow the comment threads. I'm a 6-year veteran of the blogs, but new to using Blogger, so if anyone can show me how to eliminate "anonymous" as a comment option, I'd appreciate it.