Monday, June 23, 2008

Mind the Gap

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

I've been running this site for just over three months now - the first post was on March 6 - and one thing has become extremely clear to me.

There is an enormous gap in this state between those who support the HSR project and those who do not. It's not really about HSR. It's about what kind of state, what kind of economy, what kind of society we will have.

This blog has consistently argued that we must assess HSR in context. We need to consider the of high oil prices on transportation and the economy. We need to consider the ongoing airline crisis caused by the high oil prices and what it means for intercity travel in our state. We need to realize that the cost of doing nothing isn't zero. We need to make realistic ridership assessments that include the high cost of oil instead of assuming against all available evidence that folks won't ride trains. We need to keep in mind the importance of cutting pollution and dealing with global warming. We also need to consider the economic stimulus HSR construction will provide to our economy.

Those who oppose the project never discuss any of the above. At all. It just doesn't figure into their thinking. To these opponents it is forever 1995. Oil prices are cheap, folks won't ride trains, global warming is something to doubt, the economy is doing fine. Instead of the energy-environmental-economic crisis facing our state, to them everything's just fine, so how dare HSR advocates threaten a handful of Peninsula homeowners with HSR? How dare we ask the state to drop $10 billion on this project? While the state faces a crisis as deep as any we've faced since the 1930s, the opponents seem to think we shouldn't do anything at all to meet the challenges of our day. They don't even acknowledge their existence.

California needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. HSR will be a neat system with lots of cool bells and whistles but that's no reason to support it. No, the reason to support it is that without HSR California will not meet the challenge of the 21st century, and we will fall behind the rest of the world. Hell, we might even fall behind Texas!

We owe it to Californians to ensure this system is built right - with the right routing, the right equipment, and the right oversight. But we also owe it to Californians to be honest about what this state must do to survive in the 21st century. Our recent prosperity, now coming to an end, was enabled by earlier massive infrastructure projects, from the bay bridges to the State Water Project. It is time for California to show foresight - or be left eating dust.

Over the next few weeks we will be rolling out more activist opportunities to help HSR to victory in November. If you have not already done so, fill out the pledge form to the right. Tell your friends what HSR is and why it matters. Together we will rebuild California.


Rafael said...

@ Robert Cruickshank -

- "how dare HSR advocates threaten a handful of Peninsula homeowners"

Hey, no-one is threatening them. It's the value of their properties and the cohesion of their communities that they are worried about, which is understandable. While I agree the interest of the statewide population must take precedence, it's not fair to demonize them for their spirited opposition. This is a democracy, people are allowed to be selfish.

Society as a whole will gain but it is the people who live right next to the line that will pay a disproportionate price. Caveat emptor and all that, but there's no value in being mean-spirited.

- "the state faces a crisis as deep as any we've faced since the 1930s"

That seems like a severe exaggeration to me. Perhaps it applies to the state budget and some individuals stuck on the bottom rung, but the economy as a whole is still a million miles from the depression-era poverty described in the novel "Grapes of Wrath". Indeed, by historical standards, the current recession is actually still rather mild - though try telling that to an individual facing foreclosure.

- "we might even fall behind Texas!" Ouch, shades of Dante. From the hyperlinked article, this nugget:

"Underlying the highways vs. rail debate is the need for a reality check — a basic change in public policy — away from haphazard sprawl and toward sustainable patterns of growth. Business as usual will relegate us to more of the same — more congestion, inefficient sprawl and the highest transportation costs in the nation (yes, that's right; it costs more to travel in Houston than in any other city)."

Sound familiar?

- "Our recent prosperity, now coming to an end, was enabled by earlier massive infrastructure projects, from the bay bridges to the State Water Project."

Very true. Most people don't realize just how vital basic infrastructure is to a modern economy. No water, no electricity, no transport, no communications, no health care = back to the 1800s. It may not be as sexy as Hollywood, microprocessors and genetic engineering, but those industries are just the tip of the economic iceberg.

California - indeed, US - voters have for too long ignored the inconvenient fact that developing and maintaining boring old infrastructure is actually one of the core responsibilities of government at every level. It doesn't have to build & operate it itself, but it does need to make sure it gets done. And that takes a lot of money - specifically, tax revenue.

The state of California's chronic budget shortfall is the direct result of a mismatch between voter demand for government services and voter willingness to pay for them. As everywhere else in the world, voters want to live beyond their means.

The problem is especially acute in California because its appalling constitution has led to a massive mismatch between voter expectations of what Sacramento should do and what it actually can: some 80% of state spending is mandated by referenda and, budgets require supermajorities in both houses. That's a recipe for poor accountability and financial disaster.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Oh I know nobody is really threatening the homeowners. Their communites will remain coherent and their property values won't be severely harmed. Yes, this is a democracy, they're allowed to be selfish - and we're still allowed to mock it.

I thought I was being restrained when I compared our crisis to that of the 1930s. During the Depression we did not have to deal with high fuel costs or a broad environmental crisis, and we still had a manufacturing sector poised to lead an economic recovery.

The current recession is still unfolding. Without measures to make California more economically competitive - and to ease the burden on the middle-class - this state is likely to wind up in a place much resembling that of the 1930s.

Anonymous said...

Democrats view high-speed rail as infrastructure. Republicans view it as a social program. I think this may be part of the rift as well.

crzwdjk said...

"Democrats view high-speed rail as infrastructure. Republicans view it as a social program."

I'm not sure I believe this. I think that both Democrats and Republicans can view it either way. It's just that Democrats happen to be for social programs, while Republicans are generally against them. But designing HSR (or any other transportation) as a social program tends to make for a system that people wouldn't use if they had a choice.

Rafael said...

HSR will be partly funded by private investors and its operations will be put out to tender. That's much less of a "social program" than the vast majority of roads, bridges, road tunnels etc.

While some will use high speed rail to tackle a fairly long commutes, HSR is not at all like a bumpy ride on a standing-room only subway. We're talking about intercity trains, probably with reserved seats that are spacious and comfortable. The ride is extremely smooth and the interior quiet. There's a cafe car and if you ride in first class, you can order full meals. The restrooms are utilitarian but clean.

Essentially, the experience is much like an airline flight, only with more room. This is something everyone will feel comfortable using, it's definitely not something just for pinko treehuggers and those who can't afford to drive, nor is it a gee-whiz gadget for the rich. Being on it says essentially nothing about your tax bracket.

Anonymous said...

“Beyond the Airlines’ $2 Can of Coke: Catastrophic Impact on the U.S. Economy From Oil-Price Trauma in the Airline Industry”$2_coke.pdf