November 4 is three months away, but as far as I'm concerned the campaign to pass Proposition 1 and build high speed rail in California begins now. We've spent five months hashing out the details of the project and the big picture reasons to support it here on the blog. Those have been productive and valuable conversations and I expect them to continue. But as we gear up for the Prop 1 campaign, it seems like a good time to take a step back and assess where we're at - what we've achieved, what challenges remain.
We begin from a solid base of public support for high speed rail. Polls consistently show a yes vote in the mid 50s with 56% in July saying they would support it, according to the ultra-reliable Field Poll. The official campaign has about $90,000 on tap according to the AP but as E.J. Schulz' article in the Bee papers explains, there is no opposition. Look at this statement from Southwest Airlines that he quoted:
Southwest Airlines, which serves some of the markets targeted for bullet train service, "could never support the use of public money to subsidize" high-speed rail, said company spokeswoman Marilee McInnis. But "we don't have any current plans to engage in lobbying efforts on this issue."
Translation: they are staying out of it. Schulz reports Union Pacific will do the same. The only organized opposition might come from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the usual crew of HSR deniers in Menlo Park and Atherton, but Californians are not likely to listen to them.
The polling numbers and lack of organized opposition are wonderful. But the Field Poll also noted that an astounding 78% of voters are not aware of the project. That creates an opportunity for us HSR supporters - but it also creates an opportunity for the deniers. Their stock in trade is sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt - FUD - and unfortunately, a 78% unfamiliar number suggests their claims might change more than a few minds.
That makes it all the more important for us to not only counter their flawed arguments here, but in the traditional media as well. Look for more newspaper op-eds and letters from HSR supporters. It's a shame we lost Erik Nelson, but if anyone else wants to play in the newspaper comments pages, by all means do so - feel free to post a link back to us if you do.
We also need to build the pro-HSR coalition. CALPIRG is out there mobilizing public support - apparently they had someone in Monterey last week while I was gone. The National Association of Railroad Passengers is a major supporter. We already have 34,000 members on the Facebook group, the official campaign has a long roster of backers, and politicians such as John Garamendi, Antonio Villaraigosa, and Gavin Newsom have expressed their support. But we need more active support. Politicians in Sacramento and Washington DC have been rather unserious about this project, as the wrangling over AB 3034 demonstrates. We need to rally these politicians to take action on HSR, especially as a vastly superior solution to the energy crisis than the idiotic offshore drilling nonsense.
Gas prices are a major reason why passenger rail ridership has soared nationwide, and why HSR ridership will have little trouble meeting expectations. Of course, gas prices have begun to retreat from their earlier highs - we're at $4.15 here in Monterey, down from $4.65 just a couple weeks ago. That's part of the normal fluctuation of prices, and the long-term outlook includes nothing but increases. Still, as prices drop, we need to remind the public that this is but a momentary relapse, and that if they don't want to be stuck paying $10 a gallon to drive between LA and SF, they ought to pass the HSR bonds.
The deepening airline crisis also deserves a higher public profile. Currently confined to the business pages, except when an airline begins charging for bags, the story of the long-term dismal prospects of the US airline industry needs to be better understood by voters. Californians cannot rely on cheap Southwest airfares for much longer and already the high cost of fuel is leading to fewer flights and higher fares.
We also need to reinforce the long-term value of HSR. It is the most important project this state has considered in 50 years, since we approved the State Water Project. Like the SWP, and like the Bay Bridges that were built in the depths of the Depression, HSR would provide both immediate jobs, helping our ailing economy, and set California up for long-term economic growth. As the rest of the world understands, HSR is vital for a 21st century economy.
HSR is also key tool in fighting global warming and improving the state's environment. If California is to be serious about energy independence and rolling back carbon emissions, we MUST build HSR. We cannot achieve the necessary transportation emissions reductions without it.
Finally, we need to repeat early and often the crucial point that the cost of doing nothing is NOT zero. If I had to pick a favorite post of the last five months, it'd be that one. All those folks who hem and haw about "boondoggles" and cost overruns and financial soundness are being misleading if they do not present the full picture. If we don't build HSR the costs to Californians in higher airfares and gas tank fillups will far outweigh whatever they'd have to pay to service the bond debt. The lost economic growth, the cost of expanding freeways and airports, these are all far larger than the $10 billion bond we are going to approve this November.
We are in a good position going into the final three months. But if we are to win this vote and get started on high speed rail in California, we must intensify our efforts. California's future is at stake. Let's not let those who believe the 20th century is still viable, those who think oil is still a viable base for transportation, and those who think a few wealthy landowners' desires should trump the needs of 36 million people win this debate. It's time we brought California into the 21st century.
PS: Thanks so much to Matt Melzer for filling in while I was gone these last two weeks. His post from last Thursday in particular provided a valuable set of stats and arguments proving just how and why HSR will be a success here in California.