What do the Golden Gate Bridge, Shasta Dam, and the Central Valley Water Project have in common? They are all products of the Great Depression. At a time when both California and the federal government were strapped for cash and suffering the effects of a major economic downturn, government decided to use infrastructure projects to provide economic recovery in both the short and the long term. Each project continues to provide economic activity 70 years later. Each has paid for itself many times over.
Last fall we spent a lot of time on this blog debunking the New Hoovers who claimed that now was the wrong time to build high speed rail - that despite the clearly successful model of the big 1930s infrastructure projects, California should embrace austerity and follow a different path, even in spite of the need and economic benefit of high speed trains. Here in the summer of 2009 we find that this attitude persists. However, as the enormous scale of the recession has become undeniable, the New Hoovers have had to find another reason to argue against infrastructure projects. As Dan Walters shows in the Sacramento Bee today, the state budget mess is providing the new excuse for New Hooverism:
Is this the time to launch construction of a high-speed railroad line between Northern and Southern California that will cost at least $40 billion, much of it from bonds to be repaid from a state budget that's already gushing red ink?
Yes, say its fervent advocates, contending that a bullet train, similar to those in Europe and Japan, will reduce air and auto congestion, reduce greenhouse gases and generate many billions of dollars in economic benefits.
Walters doesn't give his opponents or HSR much credit. He ignores the effect of those "many billions of dollars in economic benefits" - does he think that the state of California or its budget can afford to turn down the jobs and tax dollars that come from the HSR project? Construction workers' pay is taxed, as is their spending. HSR saves travelers time and money, creating a Green Dividend that fuels economic growth through the savings that sustainable mass transportation creates.
Instead he seems to be arguing from an embrace of misery. His preferred solution to the economic crisis appears to be lowered horizons and mass suffering. To Walters, the budget crisis means that all plans and projects that would spend money must be shelved. Presumably they'll await economic recovery, but that recovery will not occur without those infrastructure projects. Since the phrase "economic recovery" appears to be banned in Sacramento, among both politicians and the media that cover them, it isn't surprising that Walters embraces misery for misery's sake. Suffering and pain will somehow produce recovery - that's the neo-Hooverite model that Walters espouses in his column.
Most of Walters' column is devoted to rather weak attacks on the HSR project that suggest he is simply not very familiar with the key details of the project:
Bullet train advocates have been touting California as qualifying for a significant portion of the $8 billion set aside in federal stimulus money for transit because of the bond issue.
Recently, however, the feds decided to place the Los Angeles-Las Vegas high-speed route promoted by Nevada interests, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in the California system. It raises the specter that huge sums would be spent to make it easier for Californians to spend money in Las Vegas casinos.
In fact, the LA-Vegas HSR project does not appear eligible for HSR stimulus money. Nevada's application for stimulus funds was limited to $1 billion to study maglev from Primm to the Las Vegas Strip, a project that Senator Reid no longer supports. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has repeatedly stated the SF-LA HSR route is the most likely to receive HSR stimulus funds.
The criticism continues, however, questioning both whether a high-speed rail system makes transportation and economic sense and the route adopted by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, especially running trains over the unpopulated Pacheco Pass between San Jose and the Central Valley....Meanwhile, opposition to the Pacheco Pass route appears to be growing because it would mean routing trains down the bucolic San Francisco Peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose. The alternative would be to run trains over the Altamont Pass along Interstate 580 into the Stockton-Tracy area, a more heavily traveled commuter corridor.
But since the alternative route, over Altamont Pass, would have bypassed San Jose entirely, the Pacheco route actually has far more people living along it than Altamont. The fact that nobody lives in the Pacheco Pass itself is actually an argument FOR that alignment, as it means fewer stops for a train whose purpose is to whisk travelers from the Bay Area to Southern California in the shortest amount of time possible. If the goal was to design a commuter railroad, then Altamont would indeed be a preferable choice - which is exactly why the California High Speed Rail Authority plans to develop Altamont as a high speed corridor.
Environmental activists in Palo Alto are complaining about the impact on their city and, somewhat mysteriously, language appeared in still-pending revisions to the 2009-10 state budget that makes allocation of $139 million in high-speed rail planning funds contingent on "alternative alignments" being considered. Advocates of the Pacheco Pass route consider that to be a poison pill and will try to get it removed before a final budget is enacted, if that ever occurs.
Peninsula NIMBYs are a nuisance to the project, and are putting their own personal aesthetic values in alliance with neo-Hooverism in order to block economic recovery. Their opposition is unsurprising and annoying, but it's not a reason to doubt the economic value of the project.
While $9 billion of the voter-approved bond issue is to be used for the system, if and when it is ever built, the remaining $995 million can be spent on local mass transit systems on the assumption that they will improve access to high-speed rail.
There is a suspicion among those who chart the erratic course taken by the bullet train project that when push comes to shove, its only tangible fruit will be those local projects.
Only someone who has paid just passing attention to the HSR project would consider its course "erratic" - the CHSRA is well along the path of finalizing environmental documents, determining the project-level design, and has already built working relationships with the leading HSR experts around the world. Winning voter support for the project AND the $10 billion in bonds it needs to get started was no small accomplishment. And with President Barack Obama and most of the Congress on board, HSR is far from a pipe dream. It is a real plan with a bright and viable future.
But it's understandable why those who have chosen to deny the future would choose to deny the value and viability of the HSR project. For people like Dan Walters, the state's economic and budget crisis means we must lower our horizons and suffer until somehow, apparently through magic, we have economic recovery. For the rest of us, who believe economic recovery is desirable and that it can be produced through infrastructure as it was 70 years ago, the high speed rail project is a necessary part of the project to rebuild California. It's a shame Dan Walters, who has spoken so insightfully in other venues about the need to rebuild California's broken political system, chooses to eschew vision and planning in favor of a morose neo-Hooverism.
Our predecessors did not listen to that kind of talk when planning the Golden Gate Bridge or the Central Valley Project. Nor should we.