Monday, August 4, 2008

Where Things Stand

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

November 4 is three months away, but as far as I'm concerned the campaign to pass Proposition 1 and build high speed rail in California begins now. We've spent five months hashing out the details of the project and the big picture reasons to support it here on the blog. Those have been productive and valuable conversations and I expect them to continue. But as we gear up for the Prop 1 campaign, it seems like a good time to take a step back and assess where we're at - what we've achieved, what challenges remain.

We begin from a solid base of public support for high speed rail. Polls consistently show a yes vote in the mid 50s with 56% in July saying they would support it, according to the ultra-reliable Field Poll. The official campaign has about $90,000 on tap according to the AP but as E.J. Schulz' article in the Bee papers explains, there is no opposition. Look at this statement from Southwest Airlines that he quoted:

Southwest Airlines, which serves some of the markets targeted for bullet train service, "could never support the use of public money to subsidize" high-speed rail, said company spokeswoman Marilee McInnis. But "we don't have any current plans to engage in lobbying efforts on this issue."

Translation: they are staying out of it. Schulz reports Union Pacific will do the same. The only organized opposition might come from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the usual crew of HSR deniers in Menlo Park and Atherton, but Californians are not likely to listen to them.

The polling numbers and lack of organized opposition are wonderful. But the Field Poll also noted that an astounding 78% of voters are not aware of the project. That creates an opportunity for us HSR supporters - but it also creates an opportunity for the deniers. Their stock in trade is sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt - FUD - and unfortunately, a 78% unfamiliar number suggests their claims might change more than a few minds.

That makes it all the more important for us to not only counter their flawed arguments here, but in the traditional media as well. Look for more newspaper op-eds and letters from HSR supporters. It's a shame we lost Erik Nelson, but if anyone else wants to play in the newspaper comments pages, by all means do so - feel free to post a link back to us if you do.

We also need to build the pro-HSR coalition. CALPIRG is out there mobilizing public support - apparently they had someone in Monterey last week while I was gone. The National Association of Railroad Passengers is a major supporter. We already have 34,000 members on the Facebook group, the official campaign has a long roster of backers, and politicians such as John Garamendi, Antonio Villaraigosa, and Gavin Newsom have expressed their support. But we need more active support. Politicians in Sacramento and Washington DC have been rather unserious about this project, as the wrangling over AB 3034 demonstrates. We need to rally these politicians to take action on HSR, especially as a vastly superior solution to the energy crisis than the idiotic offshore drilling nonsense.

Gas prices are a major reason why passenger rail ridership has soared nationwide, and why HSR ridership will have little trouble meeting expectations. Of course, gas prices have begun to retreat from their earlier highs - we're at $4.15 here in Monterey, down from $4.65 just a couple weeks ago. That's part of the normal fluctuation of prices, and the long-term outlook includes nothing but increases. Still, as prices drop, we need to remind the public that this is but a momentary relapse, and that if they don't want to be stuck paying $10 a gallon to drive between LA and SF, they ought to pass the HSR bonds.

The deepening airline crisis also deserves a higher public profile. Currently confined to the business pages, except when an airline begins charging for bags, the story of the long-term dismal prospects of the US airline industry needs to be better understood by voters. Californians cannot rely on cheap Southwest airfares for much longer and already the high cost of fuel is leading to fewer flights and higher fares.

We also need to reinforce the long-term value of HSR. It is the most important project this state has considered in 50 years, since we approved the State Water Project. Like the SWP, and like the Bay Bridges that were built in the depths of the Depression, HSR would provide both immediate jobs, helping our ailing economy, and set California up for long-term economic growth. As the rest of the world understands, HSR is vital for a 21st century economy.

HSR is also key tool in fighting global warming and improving the state's environment. If California is to be serious about energy independence and rolling back carbon emissions, we MUST build HSR. We cannot achieve the necessary transportation emissions reductions without it.

Finally, we need to repeat early and often the crucial point that the cost of doing nothing is NOT zero. If I had to pick a favorite post of the last five months, it'd be that one. All those folks who hem and haw about "boondoggles" and cost overruns and financial soundness are being misleading if they do not present the full picture. If we don't build HSR the costs to Californians in higher airfares and gas tank fillups will far outweigh whatever they'd have to pay to service the bond debt. The lost economic growth, the cost of expanding freeways and airports, these are all far larger than the $10 billion bond we are going to approve this November.

We are in a good position going into the final three months. But if we are to win this vote and get started on high speed rail in California, we must intensify our efforts. California's future is at stake. Let's not let those who believe the 20th century is still viable, those who think oil is still a viable base for transportation, and those who think a few wealthy landowners' desires should trump the needs of 36 million people win this debate. It's time we brought California into the 21st century.

PS: Thanks so much to Matt Melzer for filling in while I was gone these last two weeks. His post from last Thursday in particular provided a valuable set of stats and arguments proving just how and why HSR will be a success here in California.


Anonymous said...

The Bakersfield Californian has an article tonight about Sen Asford on getting the prop postponded again..He failed but says he will try again this week,it will be crime if he gets this thru and the people are denied that vote!Also prop 1 has some of the lowest money backing of all the props.this cant be good for buying airtime, newspaper flyers ect. where can we donate?

Anonymous said...

@cal -- I know somewhere on the CAHSR site, they have a link for donating, but I can't seem to find it anymore.

Truth be told, relatively few people who are investigating into this project to see if its worth supporting will see this site. However, its uplifting to see that this blog is the third result when you google "California high speed rail" (after the official site and wikipedia). This place is one of the ultimate advocacy sites of CAHSR but not many people will seek it out save for the hard-core supporters and the hard-core deniers.

Possibly, the best places to comment are on the LA Times, the SF Chronicle, and the Sacramento Bee online comment sections. Those probably get more attention from the average citizen than this blog.

Anonymous said...

You know, what would is interesting is that even though Southwest opposes the project now, it would seem that they would stand to benefit from being an operator. If they were to become the operator of the HSR lines, they would essentially be replacing all their in state routes with trains whose running costs do not fluctuate with the price of oil. Not only that, but they could achieve a connectivity unparalleled in the travel industry by offering train to plane connections as one ticket. For example, you could offer flights out of state that connect from say, Ontario Airport. Somewhere down the line, I'm sure that it couldn't happen, but it would be really cool.

Brandon in California said...

The campaign to support Proposition 1 would have $100 more than they do today, except, they've never withdrawn the funds from my account.

Twice I have attemtped to donate... and not once was it reflected in my account.

Anyone else have the same experience?

And about CALPIRG... they are out trumping more than Proposition 1... the whole environment. They are seeking membership and a continued stream of funding with monthly dues.

I have spoken twice with them on San Diego street corners.... Unfortunately, they are not there specifically for HSR.. but also for the environment.

I didn't get the HSR feedback unless I spoke to it. :(

So, I have been thinking of putting a sign on the back of my SUV... "Yes on Prop 1"

Brandon in California said...

I'd like to add that Southwest could be pursuing a strategy to market a "no" campaign in the 11th hour. They could be just playing 'coy' with that response.

And, supporters of the project... if you're up for some guerlla marketing efofrts ( I am no expert), but, writing letters to teh editor timed for early/mid-October could not hurt!

Anonymous said...

Honest question: Can anyone ever remember seeing a TV ad campaign (aimed at voters in a referendum) for a public works project?

Rafael said...

Did the poll break down the lack of knowledge by demographic group and/or county? That would be useful information for spending the money.

My guess is that a lot more people have in fact heard or read by now that there is some sort of HSR project but they do not yet feel confident in expressing an opinion about it. They may not have the inclination or time to do their own research, preferring instead to wait until and acquaintance or some journalist "expert" does it for them.

The first order of business is to create a permanent reference site that presents the project's rationale and its most relevant facts and figures - as complied by CHSRA - in a very compact way. This portion should be as neutral as possible, the objective is simply to counter the copious quantity of misinformation on the interwebs. For example, there is a persistent but quite erroneous belief that some or all of the service will run on legacy freight tracks.

This reference page would need a precise hyperlinked bibliography, i.e. detailing not just the CHSRA document but also the page number. A glossary would also be helpful.


The second order of business is to translate the project into how individual voters and customers will experience the result. This sounds easy, but it's important to remember that most people are much less interested in the technical details of the journey than in what making it means for their business, their family, their love life, their vacation time etc. All this in the context of structurally high and rising costs for oil and before long, GHG emissions certificates. It takes effort to imagine all this for yourself, never mind lots of other people.

A difficult but potentially interesting approach would be to explore these personal consequences in a viral synoptic soap opera on YouTube, with a new episode a few minutes in length released every few days over the next four months. It would follow the lives of an ensemble cast of amateur actors in the year 2020. This plain number would also be the show's title, obliquely referring to foresight and hindsight.

The twist would be that in one version, the storyline backdrop would include HSR and the other the no-project alternative. In the former, the trains would all run exclusively on renewable electricity and feature reliable broadband internet access, places to stow and recharge folding electric bicycles, outlets for laptops etc. CHSRA hasn't confirmed any of these features yet, so if anyone asks, just call it creative license.

The trains and stations would be no more than venues and devices to advance the plot, but their very existence would have a profound effect on how the storyline develops. One obvious complication is that there are currently no HSR trainsets in California nor any HSR stations.

On option would be to re-use - with permission - clips of bullet trains passing by, grade crossing accidents etc. that have already been published on YouTube. Interior shots could use Amtrak trains, with the audio dubbed over later. Stations would be hardest of all, though LA's Union Station would be suitably grand.

Another approach would be to film part of the action in suitably generic settings in Spain, using American high school and university students already there as actors.

The concept of synaptic storytelling was explored in the movie "Sliding Doors" starring Gwyneth Paltrow. However, in this case, the point of divergence would be not a random occurrence but the election on November 4, 2008 - every character's individual storyline would begin on that day and then skip ahead a dozen years.

To help viewers keep track of the synopsis, the version with bullet trains could be shot in color and the one without in black and white. Each episode would close with a clever variation on the question of how the viewer will vote on prop 1 plus a link to the reference web site.

Anonymous said...

There's just a basic underlying mistrust of public works projects and rail in this country. Its not enough to prove it has been done elsewhere to great effect, any ad needs to prove it can be done HERE.

Other things I've heard while "evangelizing" the project:

- It can't work because population density is too low (these people generally don't realize fresno city alone is 500K).

- "There's no way the trains will be ontime, look at amtrack 6+ hr delays"

- "We can't run trains on time like Japan and Europe"

- "The route doesn't go through city x" and/or "the route shouldn't go through city x"

- "That route is wasteful, it could be at least 100miles shorter" if it was a *straight line* from SJ to LA.

- "If amtrack is delayed by freight trains, this will be too"

- "Air travel is faster and cheaper" citing that trains will have "massive check in delays like planes for sure" and ignoring that air travel is currently operating at a significant loss

I give the counter arguments to all of the above but nothing sticks. Very reasonable people just don't think it can happen here. Its an emotional problem and a mistrust of government works.

Brandon in California said...

Looks like I spoke to soon about CALPIRG! In my own backyard here in san Diego, actually, right down the street, 4 CALPIRG reps held signs at an onrampt to I-5.

Here's the news link:

Brandon in California said...

What kind of "evangelizing" are you doing? I've had numerous discussions with others about the project and I have heard very little in terms of the responses you're indicating.

I've focused clearly describing the plan and citing data.

The common questions I get are similar to:

"When will this happen"
"How much will it cost"

And that is about it.

I pretty much cover all question areas before I conclude that speak to future, population growth, air pollution, congestion, complications with alternatives, same technology as in France, Japan, Germany & Spain, separated right-of-way and having no conflicts with other modes, etc.

the typical response is:

"Great, we need HSR"
"We need to catch up with the rest of the world"
"Airport security lines are terrible"
"People need to stop driving so much and it's getting so expensive"
"We cannot keep trying to build ourselves out of congestion by widening freeways, something has to change"

Anonymous said...

I too haven't run into to many of the negative responses XY mentioned. Of course I live in SF, and everyone here that has heard about the proposition supports it. My most common issue is just that, that the majority of people simply haven't heard of the project.

I only really know about it because I worked for the Elections dept. in 2004 when it qualified the first time.

I try to drop it into casual conversation. e.g:

FRIEND: I gotta drive to LA this weedend for_______, boy it's gonna suck to drive 16 hours, and I'm gonna spend hella money on gas.

ME: That sucks, wouldn't it be great to take a high speed train, and be there in about two and a half hours.

FRIEND: Sure. That would be rad, but it isn't gonna happen in our lifetimes.

ME: Well, actually...