Former LA Times reporter and author Bill Boyarsky writes in today's Times about the value of public works as economic stimulus - and the barriers to their swift completion. After mentioning the passage of Prop 1A and LA's Measure R, Boyarsky goes on to write:
The Depression projects were built in a hurry, driven by economic need. Will the new crop also be put on a fast track?...
In recent years, neighborhood organizations have fought many such projects and unrestricted development. They, along with environmental groups, have pushed politicians to adopt regulations to protect the environment. Some of their objections were valid. But over the years, great projects have been stopped or stalled.
These regulations are necessary to not just securing the public interest and environmental protection, but they also help ensure that projects get built in the best way possible. At least that's the intention. It's not the rules themselves that slow construction but the lack of bureaucratic funding to help the permit reviews get done quickly and thoroughly.
The best way to ensure this process is expedited - so that the stimulus effects of infrastructure like high speed rail arrive quickly when they're most needed - is to get up-front funding. Arnold Schwarzenegger's preference, to bypass environmental reviews for infrastructure stimulus, is neither sound nor necessary and would probably just delay projects as it makes lawsuits much more likely. But if agencies like the CHSRA were given adequate funding to finish all engineering and environmental reviews quickly, then actual construction could begin that much sooner.
Boyarsky also writes about the rise of NIMBYism. Obviously that is something which will impact the HSR project - already Atherton and Menlo Park have sued the CHSRA on essentially NIMBY grounds, even though Menlo Park voters actually supported Prop 1A. Prop 1A got a considerable margin of victory and the local rail proposals in the North Bay, Santa Clara County and LA County received over 2/3 support, all of which indicate that there is a massive amount of support in California for passenger rail infrastructure projects. That will help overcome NIMBY objections.
So will a clear explanation of the economic value and necessity of these projects. Californians want these projects built - why should a few objectors along the route hold it up indefinitely?
The stick has to be matched with a carrot, however. The CHSRA needs to start working as soon as possible with communities along the route to finalize design and hold public meetings to explain to the public what is going to happen and allow the public to provide their input. An open process that welcomes public involvement is by far the best way to ensure that public support for the project is sustained. It also has the political benefit of isolating the more stubborn NIMBYs.
Some decisions will not be easy - Menlo Park comes to mind. But the sooner a public process begins, the more likely it is that the process can proceed smoothly to completion, saving time and money. For that public process to be as effective as possible, the CHSRA is likely to need lead time and staffing support that a greater infrastructure stimulus package can provide.
Boyarsky's article also describes the social and cultural impact of infrastructure projects during the Depression:
Historian Kevin Starr, in his book, "Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California," wrote of "the power of public works ... as therapy for a battered economy -- and symbol of shared identity and purpose ... millions experienced the healing symbolism of collective action in a time of great social crisis."...
And there should be some appreciation of the historical significance, even the majesty, of the task. During the Depression, the unemployed got real jobs building the schools, bridges, libraries, dams, highways, city halls and courthouses we use today. The water that supports Southern California was delivered through the labor of workers on Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Or, as Woody Guthrie wrote of another Depression-era dam on another river, Grand Coulee on the Columbia, "Your power is turning our darkness to dawn. So roll on, Columbia, roll on."
Guthrie was in the employ of the Bonneville Power Administration when he wrote Roll On Columbia, Roll On. Dorothea Lange was in the employ of the Farm Security Administration when she took her famous photos. The CHSRA has done something similar in 21st century media with the NC3D animations. I hope they will continue to appreciate the power of the visual image as the project unfolds.
I know we do. In early 2009 this blog will undertake a photo and video trip of Phase I of the HSR route from SF to Anaheim. The high speed rail project is going to be one of the most transformative projects this state has ever seen. We're going to ensure it gets the social and cultural profile it deserves, in addition to the political and financial support it requires.