At least once a day I do a Google news search for california high speed rail and then just plain old high speed rail (I also get daily Google News alerts, which are also useful). In recent weeks the searches have rarely turned up new material and so sometimes, I admit it, I have to scrape for subjects to cover in a daily post.
The Republican freakout over Harry Reid's statement that the $8 billion in HSR stimulus money might could maybe partly be used to help with a high speed train from LA to Las Vegas has caused the media to pay attention to high speed rail again. This is partly due to the media, the DC-based media in particular, still being willing to indulge Republican whining on virtually any subject. You'd think they'd notice how little the public is interested in hearing that whining, and how little credibility the Congressional Republicans have especially after freely spending under Bush and running the nation's economy into the ground.
But until the media catches up with reality, we're going to continue to have stories like this one where all a Republican politician has to do is claim there's a controversy and, suddenly, controversy actually exists:
"Tell me how spending $8 billion in this bill to have a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is going to help the construction worker in my district," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio complained as he and all his fellow Republicans voted against the stimulus. Republicans cited the rail project in accusing Democrats of breaking their word to keep the bill free of pet projects.
Let's be very clear on what is going on here. Boehner is trying to throw things against the wall in hopes something will stick. Unable to derail a stimulus bill that has wide public support, they've spent the last few weeks trying desperately to convince a skeptical public that the stimulus bill is laden with pork that will cause doom, DOOM, for generations to come.
It's also worth noting that Boehner is lying here. The bill does NOT include $8 billion for Vegas HSR, and as the LA Times properly notes, it doesn't earmark funds for ANY HSR project:
A Reid spokesman said the money was not being earmarked for any specific project but would be available on a competitive basis. "This was a major priority for President Obama, and Sen. Reid as a conferee supported it," said Jon Summers.
To Republican politicians like John Boehner, of course, passenger rail funding is pork. Inherently so. They oppose it on principle, and tend to repeat the discredited talking points of Wendell Cox and the Reason Foundation that rail is wasteful. Doesn't matter if it's HSR or light rail or streetcars or Amtrak - remember that a few weeks ago, Boehner and his fellow Republicans all voted to eliminate Amtrak funding from the stimulus. They failed, but it's a further sign that at least for the elected officials of the Republican Party, HSR denial is a way of life. As this week's vote showed, alongside California's passage of Prop 1A, the public does not support them on this.
So once we put aside the usual rantings of HSR deniers, what does this all really mean for California High Speed Rail - the SF-LA project we've been focused on here for nearly a year? The answer, as I explained to the Riverside Press-Enterprise, is that it is entirely good news.
Dug Begley's story explains that, in fact, the concept of a high speed train to Vegas is at least 20 years old, and that if this stimulus breathes life into it, that's probably a good thing:
But officials acknowledge after 20 years of talking about a bullet train across the desert, some residents are jaded about the possibilities. Robert Cruickshank, a high-speed rail proponent and creator of the California High Speed Rail Blog, said growing up in Orange County he heard for years how bullet trains were coming, but to no avail.
"The difference then is there was no funding," Cruickshank said.
To expand on this, as I did with the reporter over the phone yesterday (and I fully understand that he could only use snippets, and I am pleased with the snippets he used), the reason we haven't seen plans for HSR to Vegas materialize in those 20 years is that there was little political support for intercity passenger rail. Congress spent the 1990s taking a chainsaw to Amtrak, including canceling the Desert Wind in 1997. Until the United States was willing to embrace HSR spending, plans such as Vegas HSR would remain on the drawing board.
Now that situation has changed, and I believe that to be a good thing:
A line to Vegas could act as a nice complement to a north-south train, Cruickshank said, and has merit even though it's been a topic for 20 years with little to show for it.
"Anybody who's tried to go to Vegas on a weekend in traffic knows it would be welcome," he said.
Keep in mind the above, that the reason there's been "little to show for it" is that there's been no federal support for HSR spending until now. But the real point of this quote is to explain that if you propose it, they will come. Southern Californians would love to have this train. Complaints about the backups on Interstate 15 are commonplace among Californians, and if you could ensure folks had a way to get to Vegas that was fast and reliable, of course they'd take it. In Southern California, population 15 million, Vegas HSR is merely going to increase public support for high speed rail in general.
And the most important takeaway from all of this, by far, is that the events in Congress this week, combined with the results of the November election, indicate that both the American public and the majority in Congress along with the White House are strongly supportive of high speed rail. John Boehner is spitting into the wind here, demonstrating his irrelevance by trying to paint a popular concept as something illegitimate. The combination of voter support in California with political support in Congress means that when it comes to doling out the HSR stimulus money, California - and the SF-LA trunk route in particular - will be first in line:
Although an LA-to-Vegas line is not the priority in California, Cruickshank said it should not detract from efforts to build a high-speed line from San Diego to San Francisco.
In fact, much of the $8 billion could come to the West Coast.
"Only Los Angeles to San Francisco has any funding at all," he said. "This is the only high-speed rail in the nation that has a plan and any money behind it."
All Harry Reid has is a study. Vegas HSR, whatever it's value, is nowhere near the point of readiness that California HSR is, with completion of the environmental review and permitting process two years away at most. We have detailed engineering studies, a business plan, ridership estimates, and are now talking about final design details. No other HSR project in the country is at that point. And no other project in the country has that most precious of resources - a clearly identified and secured source of funding. The federal government loves nothing more than a local match.
Congress has shown that it strongly supports HSR funds. The people do as well. How much more in HSR funding we can get this year is dependent on a huge range of factors, but the $8 billion here is a huge signal that passenger rail's support in Congress is very strong. No amount of whining from the Republican minority will change that.