Just as passenger rail advocates are celebrating the federal government's down payment on high speed rail, and as we become aware that the retreat from last summer's record gas prices was a temporary respite, we get word from San Diego that the HSR deniers are still plying their trade, passing along the same old lies as if nothing interesting had happened between, say, November 1 and February 15. The San Diego Union-Tribune, which had happily spread some of the worst smears about Prop 1A during the campaign season, yesterday called on the state to "pull the plug" on high speed rail:
Nevertheless, a sober assessment of the project still raises profound questions – both about its viability and its advocates' honesty.
I quote that just to be clear at the outset that the U-T wants to make "honesty" part of the issue. That's worth keeping in mind as you read their lies:
We start with the High Speed Rail Authority's own official business plan. It was supposed to be made public by Sept. 1. Instead, it wasn't released until just after Proposition 1A was approved.
How often do we have to refute this zombie lie? The business plan was delivered 45 days after the state passed a budget. The September 1 deadline - given to the CHSRA five days before the deadline (on August 26) - was impossible to meet because of a budget crisis provoked by Republicans. There literally wasn't the money to hire consultants to produce the plan.
Given the business plan's contents, it's understandable why it was kept from voters (and the media). Throughout 2008, advocates touted the eagerness of the private sector to provide a large chunk of the project's huge tab. The plan, however, paints a far different picture. It warns that private investors could be wary of the project's risks and says private firms expressing interest “made it clear that they would need both financial and political commitments from state officials that government would share the risks to their participation.”
Of course private interests would have some wariness - but "wariness" doesn't mean "omg we're not investing in this" - it just means they're going to take a close and smart look. And they always want risks to be shared. That's commonplace in a large project like this. The U-T does NOT mention that the CHSRA has received over 40 statements of interest from private companies and investors, suggesting that this "wariness" is overstated.
Throughout 2008, advocates depicted the project as a pain-free no-brainer for local governments on the high-speed train's projected routes. The business plan, however, says cash-strapped local governments must come up with $2 billion to $3 billion.
I don't recall anyone saying the project would be a "pain-free no-brainer." Well, it IS a no-brainer that we need to build HSR, but we've always said it's going to cost a lot of money. We've also said that the cost will be worth it. Local government funding is anticipated to play a variety of roles, from a long-planned reshaping of rail corridors in Fresno to the Transbay Terminal to station-area developments in smaller cities. Here again the U-T takes an innocuous, widely-known fact and tries to make controversy out of it. It's essentially the same playbook as John Boehner.
The plan also simply drops claims that annual ridership would be about 117 million in favor of a vague prediction of “more than 90 million” annual trips. Yes, this figure is within the broad range cited by some campaign literature – but it wasn't the number used to persuade voters that the system would be highly profitable and would heavily reduce air pollution because people were using high-speed trains en masse instead of cars.
Note that they do not say the 90 million figure would mean HSR would not generate a profit. Nor do they say 90 million is unlikely. No do they say it would not achieve the air pollution reductions. Nor do they question the notion that people will turn to trains for intercity travel. No, they pull a typical HSR denier move and say "omg you changed the numbers! obviously you LIE!" Even though explaining that a range of numbers is possible isn't even a remotely dishonest thing to do.
Whatever advocates' specific ridership prediction, however, what's crucial to remember is its utter lack of a factual basis. Consider that the entire Amtrak system, with more than 500 destinations in 46 states, only has about 26 million passengers a year. Or consider the fact that the rail authority itself used to predict only 23 million trips a year.
What changed? As far as we can determine from advocates' own presentations, all that changed was their realization that grand claims for profitability and environmental salvation could only be made if forecasts were far higher.
First, comparing Amtrak to HSR is like comparing a Cessna to a 747. They are fundamentally different forms of rail travel. They use the national numbers, which do not explain that most of these destinations and states see one or two trains per day, instead of the Acela, which recently claimed that they now have 62% of the market on the Northeast Corridor. Nor does the U-T look at comparable HSR systems around the world. Nope, they cherrypick a stat and compare it to California HSR, even though the comparison is so logically flawed as to lack credibility.
It's not too late for state leaders to try to find a way to pull the plug on this project. Even in the best of times, it's unacceptable to commit taxpayers to spend nearly $10 billion on a project predicated on the fantasies of true believers and likely to end up costing taxpayers far more. In bad times, it's utter folly.
Sorry. America has spoken. We want high speed rail. And we're going to build it. The San Diego Union-Tribune can make up as many lies as it wants to about HSR - voters have shown they support it, America's political leadership has shown they support it, and the need is clearly there. If the best these HSR deniers can do is collect a bunch of lies and call it an "editorial" then they're in even worse shape than I imagined.
Can't wait to ride the California high speed trains to San Diego...