High speed rail is an inherently political project. We can - and should - discuss the technological and transportation merits of the plan, defend its purpose, its value, its need. But to make it reality we must navigate the politics of California - never an easy thing no matter what the issue - as we've seen this week.
The main obstacle facing high speed rail is this state's political inertia. For the last 30 years California has slowly but steadily fallen apart as its public services are hollowed out from a lack of investment. Californians don't like $4.50 gas and are flocking to rail travel - but without massive investment this can never become the viable alternative to oil-based travel that we need to stay afloat and economically competitive.
That investment - in rails, in schools, in health care - hasn't been forthcoming despite the obvious need for it because politicians always find it easier to avoid having to solve the state's structural revenue shortfall. The state's media, convinced that the #1 problem facing government is how to keep spending down, certainly doesn't help matters, but state politicians from both parties remain locked in an obsolete view of financial risk, predicated on the belief that anything new, anything that requires a substantial investment, is a bad idea.
Perhaps it is - from their perspective. California politicians like taking the easy way out, using cheap and easy budget "solutions" to kick the state's underlying revenue problem a few years down the road. HSR threatens them because it demands a solution - a spending solution - right now.
This problem is compounded by their inability or unwillingness to accept new realities. I've spent the last two days on California's trains - the Coast Starlight, the Pacific Surfliner, the Metro Red Line. All were packed, no matter the hour of the day. Gas prices are on everyone's mind and virtually everyone I talk to here - conservative, moderate, liberal - agrees on the need for non-oil alternatives.
California is changing before our eyes, as I explained earlier this week. The desire for new investment is there and if the state's politicians and media understood this, we wouldn't have this HSR problem. The ridiculous notions of "financial risk" wouldn't be discussed with no reference whatsoever to soaring fuel prices, to the airline crisis, to the cost of doing nothing. HSR's finances must be examined in context - and weighed against $80 billion for new runways and freeways, or the far larger economic cost of high oil prices, HSR's finances look pretty damn good.
Still, the project isn't completed, and the CHSRA hasn't yet nailed down other funding sources. This is a chicken-and-egg problem - how can CHSRA get federal and private commitments unless we've staked our $10 billion? We have every indication that Congress will pony up big money for HSR but not unless we prove we're willing to do so as well.
The absence of these guarantees, combined with their unwillingness to seek new revenues, led the State Senate Transportation Committee to suggest spending the state's money on commuter HSR and abandon the long-distance trains. The thinking is that by building the commuter segments first, voters will flock to HSR, building public support for it, and helping earn federal money to finish the system. Many strongly pro-HSR people have supported this idea in the comments on the last post, but I am more skeptical.
- I don't believe the commuter HSR approach will succeed in its goal because it doesn't address the core political problem I outlined above. It would essentially leave the middle section unfunded, including the expensive Pacheco Pass and Tehachapi tunnel segments which will be difficult to find leveraged funding to support. If we can't get it now, what's to ensure that funding will materialize in the future?
- It will not be as lucrative as long-distance rail. The State Senate's own report is inconsistent - they note that commuters will bring in just 9% of the profits, whereas most money will be generated by the long-distance riders. If "financial risk" is really their concern isn't it more risky to try and build the system on commuters alone? Commuter rail in California, wonderful as it is, remains subsidized by government, and insufficiently at that.
- It won't generate the necessary public support to build out the system. Look at all the HSR activism that exists. 27,000 members of the Facebook group. Thousands of calls and letters generated by CALPIRG. The CHSRA's own popular online animations. All this was generated not by support of high speed commuter rail, but high speed intercity rail. Folks get excited and active about linking north to south - not by a faster Caltrain (as valuable as that certainly is). I am not confident that commuter HSR can be easily translated into long distance HSR. It serves a very different group of riders, and does not bring rail travel into a new area of life the way intercity HSR would.
- And it may torpedo the fall HSR bond. As wu ming, a Central Valley resident, explained in the comments on the last post, Valley voters are suspicious of big-ticket infrastructure projects that benefit the Bay Area and SoCal and leave them out. Voters, cities, and businesses there have been counting on HSR to lead them into a 21st century economy. Cutting them out with a commuter HSR system will hurt the bond vote there, and we're going to need every vote we can get.
I think that HSR is on much more solid ground by maintaining the LA-SF core, and guaranteeing a phased approach to construction. We have every reason to expect federal support. And if not, then we reexamine how to pay for it ourselves. That might cause the usual suspects to freak out - but their concerns are based out of their desire to see as little government spending happen as possible.
Our concerns are to grow the California economy, provide an alternative to skyrocketing gas prices, provide green jobs and help fight pollution and global warming. I will put that up against the small government zealots any day - because California is changing, and people now understand the need to make the right investment.
I'm willing to be convinced that a commuter HSR approach as Phase I - with guarantees on finishing missing links - is a smart solution to our political problem. We're all on the same side here - getting HSR built is one of our state's highest priorities.