California faces a turning point on Tuesday. Of the numerous and important races and propositions on the ballot - including of course the all-important No on Prop 8 campaign - one proposition stands out as a potential turning point for our state, an opportunity to move beyond the failures of the 20th century and build a sustainable and prosperous future for the 21st century.
That opportunity is Proposition 1A - California High Speed Rail. If you have not already voted, it is imperative that you vote YES on Prop 1A. It may seem like an esoteric project, but high speed trains are as essential to our 21st century prosperity as the Golden Gate Bridge or the California Aqueduct was to our 20th century prosperity.
I run the California High Speed Rail Blog which is the leading source of information on the project and on Prop 1A. Since March I have written in great detail about the benefits of the project and debunked the right-wing lies being spread about it. It's hard to summarize all that in a concise diary but I will do my best. Below is a summary of the project and why it is a good and necessary idea here and now.
Currently passenger rail in California is slow but successful. Ridership on Amtrak California trains sets monthly records and routes like the Pacific Surfliner and the Capitol Corridor are packed, standing room only in some cases.
To expand the system - and to provide frequent, fast, reliable train service between the two halves of our state, SF and LA, we need to build new tracks. As we witnessed last month in the Chatsworth disaster, it is not always safe for passenger trains to share tracks with freight trains, and in any case doing so ensures slow and spotty service.
California High Speed Rail is a project that would provide that need. It involves building high speed rail tracks, for passenger trains only, "grade separated" so there will be no places where cars cross the tracks. It will be built in two phases: First from downtown San Francisco to Anaheim, via downtown San José, Gilroy, Fresno, Bakersfield, Palmdale, Burbank, and downtown LA (Union Station). This will be completed by 2018. Second phase is extensions to Sacramento and San Diego.
The trains will run at a projected top speed of 220 mph, delivering passengers from SF to LA in about 2 hours 40 minutes.
Mythbuster time! Some critics have claimed this speed and time are unattainable given current technology and terrain. This is nonsense! We are under attack from well-funded far-right groups spreading misinformation, on this point in particular. 220mph has been easily reached on trains in Taiwan, China, and Japan. France and Spain have trains that come very close. All of those countries have terrain very similar to the California route - flat valleys, metro areas, broken up by the occasional mountain range. Current HSR technology can easily reach 220mph and prototypes have broken 300mph. For information on HSR speed projections see this link
Prop 1A includes $9 billion for high speed rail and $950 million for other passenger rail lines, including commuter rail like Caltrain and Metrolink, which badly need the money.
Economics and Financing
Right away I'm sure some of you are saying "this is a great idea but omg have you seen the California budget deficit lately? we can't afford this!"
Such claims are ridiculous and ignorant expressions of neo-Hooverism. If you consider yourself a progressive it is imperative that you support this project.
First, the impact on the state budget. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office reported that California can afford Prop 1A. The $10 billion does not come out of the general fund all at once, but will be repaid over the course of 30 years. The overall financial cost would be about $19 billion, but paid around $500 million per year. Pocket change for massive economic stimulus.
What about that budget deficit? It is the product of Republicans, not of nature or economic forces. Republicans have for decades set California's tax rates too low in an effort to destroy government. Think Grover Norquist but much more successful. Because California requires a 2/3 vote to pass a budget, and because Democrats don't have a 2/3 majority, Republicans can and have demanded tax and spending cuts. Are we going to let them kill necessary projects like high speed rail? If you vote no on Prop 1A because of the budget deficit you are falling for their trap.
But there's more. How exactly is California going to emerge from this economic downturn? Through deficit spending on infrastructure. Infrastructure projects are a tried and true part of stabilizing and growing the economy during rough times. The Golden Gate Bridge, Shasta Dam, and the California Aqueduct were all built with voter-approved bonds during a recession, the first two during the deepest part of the Great Depression. The Shasta Dam was built with aid from FDR's New Deal. Prop 1A will do the same today. We need jobs. Now.
High speed rail will create at least 160,000 construction jobs and 450,000 long-term jobs. Those jobs will spur the creation of other jobs, helping our economy recover. Those jobs generate income and sales tax revenue, easing the budget deficit. California would be crazy to turn down 160,000 jobs right now.
Further, as a recent PBS documentary explained, it was high gas prices that burst the housing bubble. Yes, gas prices have been falling - but that is only because of demand destruction. In other words, people drive less, so the price falls. The ONLY way that can be sustained over the long-term is by building alternatives to oil. If we don't, demand WILL rise - and so will gas prices.
Finally, numerous economists have argued strongly for infrastructure spending right now as both economic stimulus and a way to ease the financial crisis - which after all is happening because of underlying insolvency here in the United States. These economists include Lawrence Summers, Nouriel Roubini, Duncan Black, Dean Baker and Brad DeLong, and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman.
Those who claim otherwise - that the budget deficit means we should not do infrastructure spending - are trying to defeat a revival of the New Deal. I'll have more to say about Prop 1A's critics below.
Prop 1A will not be enough in itself to build the project. We will need federal and private assistance. Both are interested in doing so, but someone has to make the first move and the first commitment. That is the state of California. Once we do, Congress will come through with $10 to $15 billion in aid. Already John Kerry and Johnny Isakson are proposing a major HSR funding bill in Congress. And nearly 40 private companies have signed nonbinding but significant letters of interest with the California High Speed Rail Authority indicating their intention to participate as well.
What if federal and private money don't materialize? Then Californians are off the hook - Prop 1A mandates that the bond money can provide only 50% of the construction cost, and that without additional money we can't start construction.
Will HSR be an ongoing drag on the state budget? Of course not. EVERY high speed rail system in operation today - every last one - is profitable. In France the TGVs subsidize the rest of SNCF's rail operations. In Spain the AVE high speed trains subsidize the construction cost of new lines.
Finally, the cost of doing nothing is NOT zero. To expand roads and airports to meet the same demand that HSR serves will cost over $100 billion. HSR is an economical way to solve our transportation needs.
High speed rail is also an essential piece of our energy independence strategy. It will save 12 million barrels of oil per year. For those of you who know anything about peak oil you'll understand the benefits of that.
At a time of ever-rising gas prices, the provision of alternatives to driving and flying is even more important. The high gas prices of earlier this year created an airline crisis, leading many carriers to cut flights between LA and SF and to raise fares as well.
Mythbuster time! Some might say "but gas prices have collapsed!" True. We were paying over $4.50 in Monterey this summer, now I've seen prices as low as $2.70. But who here thinks that's going to last? Who here is willing to gamble that the price will never rise again?
The only reason oil prices have declined is demand destruction. Meaning that fewer people are using gas to travel. If lower gas prices spur an increase in gas consumption, the price will rise again, as many economists have recognized. The only way to produce affordable, sustainable, long-term growth independent of the vagaries of oil price fluctuation is to build rail projects such as high speed rail.
Energy independence also spurs economic growth. Urban planners have identified a green dividend. When a metro area invests in mass transit, the money not spent on gas or in congestion can get redirected to other uses. In Portland alone the green dividend is around $3 billion. HSR will produce an even larger green dividend for California.
High speed rail and Prop 1A are also necessary to beat back global warming and reduce our carbon emissions. As this chart from Alberta High Speed Rail shows, HSR is by far one of the most climate-friendly forms of transportation:
California High Speed Rail will cut 12 billion pounds of carbon emissions per year. Additionally, the California High Speed Rail Authority has adopted a plan to power the entire system by renewable electricity. An independent study has shown this is possible, and that HSR will serve as a spur to new renewable projects in California by providing a guaranteed purchaser of renewable energy.
If this project is so great why would anyone oppose it? Few are. No official opposition committee has been formed to fight Prop 1A. However, some of the usual right-wing suspects are doing all they can to prevent a progressive, Green New Deal from being implemented here in California.
As I wrote about today at the HSR blog, the Howard Jarvis Association and the Reason Foundation are acting as the de facto No on 1A campaign, and are having some success at getting their misinformation and lies across in the media. These groups, the Reason Foundation in particular, are funded by oil, auto, and airline companies like ExxonMobil, Ford, and Delta Air Lines. No wonder they oppose high speed rail!
These two organizations banded together to put out a study full of misinformation and lies, claiming that HSR will be a "boondoggle." We thoroughly debunked that study at our blog, as well as other outright lies from the Reason Foundation and their allies.
But we progressives, we Kossacks, we know better. Don't we? We know better than to embrace a new Hooverism and side with our longtime right-wing enemies on this. Don't we?
California progressives support Prop 1A, as shown by the Courage Campaign's Progressive Voter Guide. (Note: I work for the Courage Campaign and put together that voter guide, although my activism on Prop 1A is done on my own time and is not an official project of the Courage Campaign.) These groups include the California Democratic Party, the California Labor Federation, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, and many others.
If we want to bring America out of its economic crisis and provide modern, safe, clean, sustainable transportation, we MUST approve Proposition 1A. As Van Jones so memorably told us at Netroots Nation this summer, we must move from opposition to proposition. Our future is at stake. Will you help create a better future by voting for Prop 1A?
For more information on Prop 1A:
California High Speed Rail Blog - founded by yours truly, FULL of detailed information on the above points and many others
Californians for High Speed Trains - the official Yes on 1A campaign site
High Speed Rail for California - a project of Fiona Ma, who has led the fight in CA for HSR
Support California High Speed Rail - our Facebook group, with over 40,000 members!