Monday, May 12, 2008

Quentin Kopp Drinks Your Milkshake

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

If you missed this morning's HSR hour on KQED-FM's Forum, you can get an archived version of the show at this link. It's well worth a listen, although deep insightful discussion was somewhat lacking. Below are my thoughts on the show:

  • I had forgotten about Quentin Kopp's force-of-nature personality. Won't make that mistake again. You don't survive decades in San Francisco politics by being soft. Kopp put in an excellent performance, dominating the hour and dealing effectively - I thought - with some of the common, uninformed objections to the HSR plan. There were a few moments where Kopp erred - he claimed that AB 3034 prevented a station from being built between Merced and San José, though as the bill text makes clear it is between Merced and Gilroy that no station can be built. There WILL be a Gilroy station. Also, Kopp didn't correct a caller who worried about where you'd put a rail line at the Grapevine, when in fact it is Tehachapi Pass that will be used for high speed rail.

    Those minor points aside, Kopp dealt pretty forcefully with some of the common criticisms. He defended the ridership projections and carbon emissions reduction projections well. He also dealt with criticism and concern over the funding of the project, and rightly noted the importance of there being no organized opposition (yet) to the bond measure. Kopp is a master of process, budgeting, and planning, tenacious as hell and able to get his way. I can see how that may eventually rub people the wrong way, but the CHSRA needs a strong leader, and in Kopp they most certainly have that.

    Perhaps most significantly, neither Erik Nelson nor Lee Harrington, the token HSR opponent, were able to rebut Kopp effectively. He dominated the hour, and I daresay, he drank their milkshake.

  • Lee Harrington was out of his depth here. His arguments against HSR were incredibly weak and boiled down to his preference, as executive director of the Southern California Leadership Council, that the state's bond capacity be preserved for something like port capacity expansion, freeway widening, airport expansion, that sort of thing. He had no concept of why HSR is needed to keep California moving, and even parroted the discredited "Southwest Airlines offers cheap travel" nonsense. Kopp was especially effective in smacking down that claim, pointing out that the Texas high speed rail project so memorably killed by Southwest and others in the 1990s has been revived, with support from other major airlines. Harrington gave the impression of a man hopelessly stuck in the 20th century, unable to grasp that the basic economy of transportation has undergone a sea change in the last 5 years. Martin Engel would have been a more interesting guest to speak for the HSR critics.

  • Erik Nelson, ostensibly there to play the journalistic straightman, in fact wound up giving some key support to Kopp's claims and overall helped make a decent, if imperfect, case for HSR. Unfortunately Nelson also contributed to one of the show's major flaws - an overemphasis on the finances of the HSR plan. Nelson and Michael Krasny both spent a LOT of time discussing the ridership projections, whether HSR works financially in other countries (to his credit Nelson pointed out that in almost every case they do). Nelson argued that most major infrastructure projects run over budget, but made no attempt to explain this far-fetched claim. His only evidence was the LA Red Line subway. It, like the Big Dig, was a massive urban tunneling project, and those projects are very susceptible to cost overruns. The HSR project has very little urban tunneling involved, save for the mile from Fourth and King station in SF to the Transbay Terminal. Building HSR on open land, and tunneling through mountains, are fairly common engineering practices and while some cost overruns are possible, they are not nearly as likely as Nelson made it sound.

    I have consistently argued that the HSR project will come in at more than $40 billion when all is said and done - but that most of that will be due to the declining value of the US dollar and global inflation in the cost of construction materials. Nobody on the show appeared to mention these points at all.

    More fundamentally, nobody mentioned the cost of NOT building HSR. Everyone seemed to assume that the choice was between spending $40 billion on HSR or $0 on the status quo. This is not only incorrect, but ignorant. The cost of not building HSR is FAR higher - $80 billion for airport and freeway expansion alone, and an even larger economic cost to the state and to voters from soaring gas prices. Nelson did mention the effect of $4/gal gas, but only at the 45' mark.

    I got the clear sense that for most of the guests, and for the host as well, the 21st century high speed rail project was being evaluated with obsolete 20th century assumptions. This is a criticism I've leveled at Nelson before but what today's show demonstrated is that this is really a problem with the American media more generally. In their self-appointed role as guardians of public discourse, they have persisted in evaluating our society and its challenges through lenses last refined in the early 1990s. Fifteen years of fundamental change has passed most of them by, to the point where most of the show was spent in a discussion about HSR's finances almost totally divorced from the basic context in which that project is being assessed.

  • Overall the show suggested to me how little the public understands about the details of high speed rail. Some callers assumed it would share tracks with freight trains and replicate Amtrak's problems (it won't) or that the construction alone would wreak massive environmental devastation (it won't). The basic facts of the HSR project are not well known, nor are its most compelling arguments - HSR is necessary for our climate, for our economy, and for our transportation needs. If we are to ensure a victory this November, Californians need to properly understand the issues at stake here. I am not confident that their media is going to help in this process.

Unfortunately I was driving between Salinas and Gilroy at the time, and the hills along Highway 101 don't exactly make for good cell phone conversations, otherwise I'd have called in. But that's what the blog is for; continuing discussions and bringing them to a wider audience that understands the world in which we now live, instead of pretending that we still live in 1970.

What are your thoughts on the show? Share them in the comments.

PS: When commenting, please enter a name instead of "anonymous." It can be a pseudonym, the name of your dog, whatever - but pick something aside from anonymous. That'll make it easier for readers to follow the comment threads. I'm a 6-year veteran of the blogs, but new to using Blogger, so if anyone can show me how to eliminate "anonymous" as a comment option, I'd appreciate it.


Anonymous said...

In your Blogger dashboard, go to "Settings" then "Comments," then select a different option under "Who can comment?" I assume that "anyone" is currently selected. If you change it to "Registered Users" or "Users with Google accounts," then anonymous commenters will no longer be able to add comments (the downside is that your commenters will have to be registered in order to comment, so some people might be discouraged from leaving comments).

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I like the post title. One of my colleagues came into my office today and said I needed to listen cause Kopp rocked...or well...drank their milkshakes.

Brandon in California said...

Wasn't it THEM that drank Kopp' milkshake?

Robert Cruickshank said...

Even Erik Nelson admits that Kopp did very well on the show. I do agree with him that it would have been great to hear Martin Engel on the show, if only to hear Kopp take him apart piece by piece.

Tony D. said...

A scary thought entered my mind at work today as I read over a union newsletter. If HSR is promoted as "public/private financing/partnerships," could we see the unions come out against the bond measure come November? I sure would hope not, but any time we see money-saving ideas come forth that requires privatization (using private contractors, etc), the unions go insane! Any thoughts?

Robert Cruickshank said...

Unions rightly oppose most P3 projects because they are cover for union-busting by outsourcing union work. In fact, P3 projects are usually not money-saving - plenty of examples exist to prove that fact - instead they are designed to enrich private investors at public expense.

For HSR, the devil is in the details. What exactly will the private role be? Construction? Operation? Or investment? My guess in union endorsement will hinge on that. And since the plan does not, at present, appear to involve jettisoning union rules on state contracts, I expect the Cal Labor Fed and most unions in the state to endorse HSR.

But again, the details are what matter, and if they come out the wrong way, some unions may oppose the plan on that basis.

calbear_06 said...

Is there a detailed discussion of the ridership estimates by you or Kopp or someone posted online? I've heard the claim that it is overestimated at trains every 3 minutes or so- is that the plan and that is expected to be full, or is that incorrect?

Rafael said...

@ michael -

-> ridership & revenue forecasting study

Robert Cruickshank said...

I haven't sat down and looked at the specific ridership numbers. But I think we can apply simple common sense to the matter.

The airlines, as I have repeatedly argued, are in serious trouble. And their first target for cuts are shuttle routes, including LA-SF. As fuel prices soar that creates demand for alternatives. Ridership on Amtrak California lines is soaring and the infrastructure can now barely meet the demand.

Will HSR ridership meet the exact projections of the CHSRA? Maybe, maybe not. But does it really matter? Focusing on exact numbers seems to miss the point entirely. We know that there is a need for HSR - in terms of the environment, climate, economy, energy. And we already are witnessing soaring ridership on public transit systems here in CA.

All that suggests to me that we can expect healthy ridership levels on the HSR system when it opens. Whether it matches the projections is not important, because the projections aren't the reason we're building the system.

Anonymous said...

It’s amazing how I came away with a whole different take on the show. I have listened to it twice now. Kopp was pretty feeble in some of his replies. When questioned about cost, specifically the segment from San Francisco to San Jose and the caller stated that there were 60 grade crossings and that each cost $100,000,000 and so how could the cost estimate for that segment be only $5 billions, since the rest of the segment including stations etc. was not accounted for, Kopp replied “I have faith in the cost estimates of my engineers.”. That’s hardly a rebuttal.

He was terribly defensive on his taking part in the “way over cost” and “way under used” BART to SF airport extension.

So I hardly agree with the “drank their milk shake” synopsis. Harrington certainly held his on the financial end. Krasny could have had a more balanced program if he had had opposition present; but it’s still early in the crusade. I would think that Kopp’s crowing that “almost 60% of likely voters” are going to vote for the bond issue, is certainly not over whelming at this stage, especially since well less than 5% of the voters know anything al all about this project