One of the most bizarre and nonsensical anti-HSR op-eds appeared in the Tracy Press on Friday. Written by Craig Saalwaechter, the article makes high speed rail out to be some kind of "hurricane" that will destroy the state. Instead the author winds up defending a failed status quo, suggesting that California stand idly by in the face of looming environmental, energy, and economic crisis. If Saalwaechter wants to analogize HSR to a hurricane, his approach is that of someone who sets up a lawn chair as the storm approaches without putting plywood over the windows and getting the hell out of town.
Think of it as a big Y placed smack dab in the middle of California.
No, think of it as a big WHY?
Proponents tout its ability to eliminate commuter congestion, reduce air pollution and provide an alternate mode of transportation.
At last week’s transit forum sponsored by the city, I didn’t meet any Tracy-to-LA commuters, just Tracy-toward-the-bay commuters.
High-speed rail won’t help reduce their congestion along the Interstate 580-205-120 corridor.
Earth to Craig: Tracy is not California. It's one thing to point out that Tracy isn't going to immediately benefit from HSR. But quite another to assume that since Tracy isn't going to get an HSR station, nobody else will, and nobody anywhere will benefit. Commuters in the Bay Area and Southern California will see a significant benefit from high speed rail, whether you live in San Jose and commute to work in downtown SF, or live in Orange County and commute to LA, or any number of other combinations.
Of course, HSR riders won't just be commuters. They will also be travelers - tourists, business travelers, families going to see grandma and grandpa for the winter holidays. Lots of residents in Tracy have family in SoCal. Lots of residents in SoCal have family in the Bay Area. Given the ever-rising cost of gas and airfares and the cutbacks in flights, this is an important consideration for all Californians.
Saalwaechter's article mentions none of this. It's basically a bunch of non-sequiturs strung together to reach the 800 word requirement.
Supporters of the bond reluctantly claim that the total cost of the high-speed rail system could reach $40 billion. They expect $10 billion from the feds and the rest from “private investments.” Bet you can’t wait to see the shenanigans and shady deals that are put together by our bureaucrats in Sacramento.
This HSR supporter - me - has never been reluctant to explain the total cost of the HSR system. Of course it's $40 billion. Of course we expect $10 billion or more from the feds, and yes, we expect private investors. But there's no reason to imply "shenanigans" unless your worldview is so cynical that you probably have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. The Authority has already been in discussions with private investors about what their needs are to invest. This is a discussion that will unfold over the coming years and involve the legislature's oversight in a public process. If Saalwaechter can't be bothered to be a good citizen and get involved in the process and actually read the documents, he shouldn't be making baseless claims.
And have you noticed that as projects grow from city to county to state, they get worse? Just look in our own backyard at the multi-county San Joaquin Delta College disaster. Gee, what a shocker that the big city of Stockton gets all the goodies and the neighboring towns get shafted.
This non sequitur is actually rather telling. To folks like Saalwaechter, ALL government projects are inherently flawed. There's not a good one in the bunch. Whether it's a school or a train or a bridge or who knows what else, anything government touches turns to dung in his mind. His objection is really to government, not to HSR. Otherwise he'd have more knowledge of the transit projects that came in on-time and on-budget, like the Metro Gold Line extension.
But back to Prop. 1A and its cost estimates. It’s a huge underestimate comparison, but let’s use recent and planned BART extensions as a template. The almost $2 billion Millbrae-to-SFO connection and the now estimated $7 billion Milpitas-to-Santa Clara line will be a total of less than 40 miles of 1960s technology. Total cost: $9 billion. Does that number sound familiar? Can you imagine the higher cost of a state-of-the-art bullet train?
BART's construction costs are unusually high owing to its unique technology. It's a distinction few in the public understand, since they see all passenger rail as basically being the same. It's an unfortunate legacy of decades of underinvestment in rail. But that doesn't mean that HSR will face the same cost overruns as BART - the technology is standardized, the construction methods are standardized. Any cost overruns will come due to inflation and the declining value of the dollar.
So picture this: You drive over to San Francisco, and after waiting through long Homeland Security lines, you start your Southern California trip from the marble-laden San Francisco station, with your hair figuratively whipped by 200 mph winds. You race down the peninsula watching blue “Your Tax Dollars at Work” signs whiz by. You roar into the polished granite San Jose station and literally fly off toward Gilroy.
Oh, no, the train is slowing, and you see a “Track Closed” barrier ahead. As the train grinds to a halt, you notice there is no Gilroy station, just a retired garlic worker wearing a conductor’s hat sitting in the sun at a card table! Off in the distance, you faintly hear, “Sorry folks, we ran out of HSR money.”
This is where his column, already shaky to begin with, goes off the rails completely. From the 200mph speeds in a "marble-laden station" to a train that stops in the dead of nowhere his fantasy makes little sense. Obviously the underlying concern is the Authority will run out of money before the system is completed. That's a real issue, but Prop 1A - as amended by AB 3034 - has some pretty strong safeguards preventing such a situation. The bond money can't be spent on more than 50% of station and track costs, essentially requiring a federal commitment before construction can begin.
Recently it was written (Our Voice, Aug. 30) that this 800-pound gorilla of a proposition may generate $11 million for the Altamont corridor. It could improve the ACE tracks or lead to building a separate rail line. With the costs of land acquisition, planning, designing and environmental impact studies, that money would be burned up before the first spike is driven.
Even with some nebulous matching-fund scheme, the current cost of rail track construction would net Tracy about 3 miles of track. Well, if Alaska can have a bridge to nowhere, we can a track to nowhere.
But nowhere does he define "the current cost of rail track construction." If he wants to call Tracy "nowhere" he's free to do so, but here I thought he opened his column by arguing Tracy needs a commuter connection to jobs in the Bay Area. If he's making speculation about costs that aren't based on any evidence, and if he's contradicting himself within a single op-ed, can we really take what he says that seriously?
Prop. 1A would do absolutely nothing to improve our commuter problems. So why would we saddle our residents with this massive state bond debt?
Furthermore, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is floating a 1-cent increase in sales tax to close the current $15 billion deficit. If BART costs are any indication, expect the true cost to put in the stations and 800 miles of track to easily exceed $100 billion. So expect repeated massive income and sales tax increases in the future. Do we really need this debacle?
As I noted above, BART is not HSR. I'd love for him to show me an HSR construction project anywhere in the world that saw 250% cost overruns. If he can't he's not credible.
More importantly, Saalwaechter is making the same mistake as dozens of other HSR deniers - assuming that the cost of not building HSR is zero. It's not. The cost of not building HSR is north of $100 billion, when you include the cost of expanding freeways (which Saalwaechter supports), the cost to travelers in higher fuel prices, the cost to businesses and workers of those fuel costs, the costs of climate change, and the lost economic opportunity for jobs and growth that HSR provides.
Ultimately the problem with this op-ed is that it assumes the status quo works just fine. That we can stop big bad government in its tracks and save ourselves from disaster. For that argument to work you have to ignore a LOT of evidence that demonstrates disaster is coming and that our current transportation system is not tenable.
California is going to have to pay to extricate itself from this crisis. There is no way around it. The question before us is whether we spend $10 billion on this bond or north of $100 billion to try and manage without HSR. When you look at the complete picture, as the HSR deniers never do, HSR clearly is the cost-effective, fiscally smart solution.