Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Little Less Conversation

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

Daniel Weintraub at the Sacramento Bee is hosting a "Sunday Conversation" on Prop 1A. The conversation consists of four articles - an HSR-skeptical article from Weintraub himself, an article from HSR denier Joseph Vranich and two from Californians who currently ride the passenger trains and who would welcome high speed rail. It's an interesting discussion, if rather incomplete.

Weintraub's article does not set a good tone, and is rather deeply biased against HSR. For example:

Will they risk $10 billion, which translates into $650 million a year in debt-service payments, on an unproven idea at a time of great personal, societal and governmental financial stress?

Weintraub does his readers a disservice to argue that HSR is an "unproven idea." That is simply untrue. It is a proven idea - he can look at France, Germany, Spain, Japan, China, and Taiwan to find HSR success stories. Many of these systems have been operating for a long time - for 45 years in Japan - so Weintraub is off base to claim it "unproven." Californians have been setting monthly records on intercity passenger trains for nearly two years, so he can't credibly argue intercity rail is an unproven idea either.

And even in good times, $650 million a year is not chump change. To put that number in perspective, consider that it is equivalent to 20 percent of what the taxpayers spend now on the California State University system, which has become a giant assimilator taking working-class kids, many of them from poor immigrant families, and turning them into successful players in an ever more technological economy.

Would a new train, even a futuristic one, really be a better investment than giving 70,000 more young adults a college education every year? That's the kind of choice that is buried in these single-issue ballot measures but rarely debated.

This is a deeply biased and misleading framing. $650 million a year is 6.5% of the annual budget of California prisons, but Weintraub didn't use that as the point of comparison. Instead he argues that California must choose between higher education or high speed trains, a clearly biased choice designed to make HSR look bad.

The state Legislative Analyst, a nonpartisan office, noted that California can afford Prop 1A - that the bond debt will not break our existing debt ceiling. Further, as a Sacramento-based political reporter Weintraub certainly knows that the problem with California's budget is a broken process where the 2/3 rule prevents the state from generating as much revenue as it needs to. Simply restoring the pre-1998 income tax brackets for the top earners, or restoring the Vehicle License Fee that averaged $150 per driver per year, would generate more than enough money to close our budget deficit, pay the debt service, and have enough left over to help more kids attend college.

Besides, "futuristic"? Huh? HSR is a standard, off-the-shelf technology that is actually rather prosaic in its day to day operations.

At the end of his column Weintraub mentions the jobs and economic stimulus that will be generated by Prop 1A, but this feels tacked on - especially as it directly challenges many of his earlier claims about the "opportunity cost" of HSR:

But voters seldom consider the trade-offs inherent in each such proposal, the opportunity cost of doing less of something else, such as higher education, that is not on the ballot.

The problem is that voters also don't often consider the tradeoffs of rejecting a badly needed piece of long-term infrastructure, partly because writers like Weintraub do not ever put it in that way. The stats on job creation Weintraub cited should have caused him to reconsider this "opportunity cost" point - how exactly is California going to have money to do anything if people are out of work, dependent on volatile oil prices, and if the state lacks the tax revenues that the jobs would create?

Further, Weintraub is assuming that the state cannot or will not generate new revenues to ensure that we can do all the things we need to do - pay for schools and health care AND generate new economic opportunities through projects like high speed rail. His framing is inherently Hooverite - that we should not turn to deficit spending in a time of economic crisis. One wonders if Weintraub would have supported the Golden Gate Bridge or the Shasta Dam were he writing for the Bee in the 1930s.

Perhaps the most egregious part of his article is his discussion of outside funding, which is just plain wrong:

More than two-thirds of the money to complete the project is supposed to come from sources still not identified. If that money never materializes, or comes up short, the taxpayers would some day be asked to step up with even more billions to finish the line, or risk stopping mid-project with the world's most expensive train to nowhere.

None of this is true. Much of the remainder of funds is to come from Congress. Weintraub's own paper ran an article quoting Rep. Doris Matsui as saying California is well positioned to receive some of the first Congressional HSR money. Senators John Kerry and Johnny Isakson are leading a bipartisan effort for HSR funding. Weintraub would have been on less biased ground had he said that the funding was not secured.

Additionally AB 3034 amended the ballot proposal to NOT leave the taxpayers on the hook. AB 3034 directly addressed and rendered moot Weintraub's worry about a train to nowhere, since the Prop 1A bond money cannot be used to build more than 50% of a track or a station. The Legislature is not stupid and they will simply not authorize money to be spent to build half a station - only when matching funds are secured will construction begin.

Of course the Bee also included an article from Joseph Vranich, the co-author of oil company-funded Reason Foundation's HSR study that was thoroughly debunked here a few weeks ago. His article offers little that is new and relies on the same discredited ideas as that flawed study.

Happily Weintraub did solicit articles from two California women who eagerly await high speed rail. Estelle Shiroma is a frequent rider on the Capitol Corridor and shared her reasons for wanting HSR:

High-speed rail could very easily replace airline trips when I travel within California. The advantages are numerous - no long waiting period to board, more comfortable surroundings, and ample work space not available on planes. Trains are also more accessible for the handicapped. As the baby boomers age, there will be many more seniors who will not be (or should not be) driving, and the train would provide a safer alternative.

Shelly Poticha is the president and CEO of Reconnecting America and offered her own thoughts on HSR's value:

If California's high-speed rail is anything like the Acela in the Northeast Corridor or the trains I've ridden in Italy and France, the cars will be clean, the seats comfortable, and good food will be available. I'll be able to look out the window at the landscape of our beautiful state and see the communities that define much of our history and support our economy. And, unlike air travel, I'll be able to plug in my computer and connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi or take a business call on my cell phone(in the cellphone-approved cars, of course)....

Ironically, I'm heading to Mississippi to speak to a group of 100 mayors who have joined the Southern High-Speed Rail Commission. They want to build high-speed rail from New Orleans to Atlanta and Houston to Mobile. Many see the rail investment as a huge economic boon: thousands of new jobs, revived towns and travel options for residents who have to commute from city to city. It looks like they are going to pull this off. Can California afford to be left behind?

HSR is a better way to travel, and Poticha does a good job of explaining not only that aspect of HSR's value to California, but reminds us of another aspect of the "opportunity cost" that Weintraub ignored - if we don't build it, other parts of the United States will. California will lose out on not only federal funding, but on the economic opportunities that high speed trains generate.

California cannot rest on its laurels and do nothing to secure a prosperous 21st century future, the way Weintraub and Vranich suggest. Instead we should follow the lead of Estelle Shiroma, Shelly Poticha, and the San Jose Mercury News and plan for our future. From the Merc's Yes on 1A editorial:

The proposal, years in the making, has been thoroughly vetted in public debate, particularly over the route. The High Speed Rail Authority made the right choices, coming up with a practical and visionary plan that will place San Jose and Silicon Valley at the heart of the Bay Area's economy. We recommend it.

Proposition 1A's $9.95 billion bond will cover about a quarter of the cost of the high-speed rail project. The source for the rest is not certain, although similar systems have found private investment, and a federal high-speed rail funding bill just signed by President Bush was drafted in part with this project in mind.

Still, there's no question it's expensive, and, with a recession looming, voters will be wary. But a down economy is exactly the time to invest in transportation and other infrastructure that will form the backbone of our future prosperity.

California cannot rely on the 20th century infrastructure to provide prosperity for much longer. Just as we rejected the advice of Herbert Hoover and his supporters in the 1930s and built the Golden Gate Bridge and Shasta Dam anyway, so too should we reject the claims of the New Hoovers and build high speed rail in California.


Anonymous said...

This is one of your better articles Robert. But I think you give the opposition too much credit by citing them. After all, its an argumentative fallacy to grant them the acknowledgment of some implied legitimacy when you quote and refute a proposal set forth by the opposition that gives a deceptively simplified statement harmful for to a project that benefits the greater good.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Part of it is that I actually do respect Daniel Weintraub, so I am disappointed his op-ed was so full of flaws.

Spokker said...

Why not build this during poor economic times so that when the good times roll around again this system can really strut its stuff?

Kevin Gong said...

Mr. Weintraub brings up the importance of the opportunity cost of those bond funds. Sure, there are going to be issue voters out there who would rather see the money spent on things like education or social services.

It is better to have someone speak up on this than not in the end, and I think that intelligent California voters will understand the outstanding economic and social value that HSR represents for the State's future.

Rafael said...

I can't help but wonder what the Sacramento Bee would be writing today if that city had been selected for phase I of HSR construction.

Anonymous said...

Rafael writes:

I can't help but wonder what the Sacramento Bee would be writing today if that city had been selected for phase I of HSR construction.

In a similiar I can't wonder what the SF Chromicle and San Jose Mercury would be writing if Altamont and up the north side to Oakland had been chosen for phase I of HSR construction.