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Last month, the California State Senate followed the State Assembly to vote to authorize the issuance of $4.6 billion in state bond funds to begin construction on the first phase of a planned California High Speed Rail, including millions of dollars for local rail modernization in the LA basin and the San Francisco peninsula. Cue conservative outrage:

From Jon Coupal, President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers' Association:

“Sacramento politicians have turned their backs on education and public safety and voted to waste billions on the largest boondoggle in American history.”
For those of you who don't know, Howard Jarvis is was the conservative Republican who pushed through California's disastrous Proposition 13 back in 1978. The one that gutted California's top-notch public education system by depriving it of millions of dollars of property tax revenue. With a real boondoggle under their belt, they really shouldn't be going after a manufactured one.

From George Will:

“[California] State Sen. Joe Simitian’s district office near Stanford’s campus is nestled among shops sporting excruciatingly cute names (“A Street Bike Named Desire,” “Mom’s the Word” maternity wear) intended to make the progressive gentry comfortable with upscale consumption by presenting it as whimsical. This community surely has its share of advanced thinkers who believe trains are wonderful because they are not cars (rampant individualism; people going wherever and whenever they want, unsupervised).


Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker rejected $810 million in federal money for a 78-mile high-speed rail project paralleling Interstate 94 between Milwaukee and Madison. Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich rejected $400 million for a high-speed (well, about automobile speed) train paralleling Interstate 71 between Cleveland and Cincinnati. Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion for 90 miles of high-speed rail paralleling Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando. In faith-based transportation policy, rail worshipers believe people will park their cars in Tampa and then rent cars in Orlando.

[California Governor] Brown’s reverence for his rail bauble is fanaticism. Or perhaps filial piety: His father, governor from 1959 to 1967, built much of the freeway and water infrastructure for postwar California. When the son was first elected governor 38 years ago, he seemed exotic; now he embodies progressivism’s banality. Then he wanted a California space program; now he is fixated on railroads, a 19th-century technology. His prescription for California’s ailments is higher taxes and expensive trains.”

That whole “19th century technology” spiel is intended only to unfairly denigrate rail technology. The benefits of public transportation, including rail, is tremendous, and is more efficient than automobiles in shuttling massive amounts of passengers from Point A to Point B. Not to mention that by his logic, his beloved car becomes “19th-century technology” as well.

Will also argues that Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida's rejection of rail funds clearly means that California should follow their lead. For a self-proclaimed lover of individualism, that isn't a very independent course of action. There is an important distinction between the reasons why those states' projects failed, while California's is on its way to success.

The Ohio project never made sense in the first place. The “3-C” route would have linked Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland at top speeds of 79 mph, with average speeds half that. Those speeds are absolutely pitiful, especially considering Ohioan highways aren't particularly congested. It is unfair to compare California's proposal to this miserable excuse for a “high speed” rail.

America's congested highways.
Florida's planned Tampa to Orlando route was far more promising. It had all the permits and environmental evaluations conducted, and the government already owned the right-of-way. It was shovel-ready. Flying at 170 mph down the middle of busy Interstate 4, the train was to be President Obama's showpiece project to advertise to the rest of the country the very real utility and promise of high speed rail. Florida had an unemployment rate of roughly 12% at the time, and construction jobs were projected to be in the thousands. Private sector firms were lobbying to be the first one to build a high speed rail line in the United States. Private investors were publicly interested. Former Republican turned Independent Governor Charlie Crist had lobbied hard for the stimulus funds, but the plan promised too much hope for Obama's ambitious high speed rail project, and made too much sense for Republican Governor Rick Scott. He killed the project, even over the objections of Florida Rep. John Mica (R), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who said Gov. Scott's decision “was a huge setback for the State of Florida, our transportation, economic development, and important tourism industry”.

Wisconsin's high speed rail proposal was killed in a similar fashion as Florida's: a Republican governor seeking to gain some easy short-term political capital. The federal government had already committed $810 million dollars to the project before Gov. Walker axed it. Funnily enough, after those funds were redistributed, (and after the Walker administration completely ignored his state's ten-year contracts with the company) the Spanish firm Talgo announced that it was going to shut down its Milwaukee train-manufacturing operations and relocate (and bring the jobs with it) to a state more friendly to high-speed rail.

Imagine a San Francisco without this.
In discussing California's planned high speed rail, it's always good to know a little bit about California's history with large-scale infrastructure projects. Take the iconic Golden Gate Bridge for example. Who today could imagine San Francisco's skyline today without the brilliant red suspension bridge fading into the distant fog? In fact, the bridge almost didn't get built. The Southern Pacific Company and its subsidiary, the Golden Gate Ferry Company campaigned heavily against the proposal, even filing a lawsuit to prevent the competition. The Department of War was concerned that the bridge would interfere with navy traffic. And so-called experts proclaimed that such a bridge couldn't be built across the treacherous waters and blinding fog of the Golden Gate strait. Over all these objections, the California legislature approved a $30 million bond measure to begin constructing the bridge. In 1929, Wall Street crashed, and no one was willing to buy the bonds until 1932, when A.P. Gianninni, founder of the San Francisco branch Bank of America, bought the entire issue for the “good of San Francisco”. Today, it is impossible to imagine San Francisco without the iconic Golden Gate bridge guarding the bay, yet it would never have happened had the Southern Pacific Company succeeded in eliminating its competition (San Francisco would still be using ferry technology to move people across the bay!). Or if the “experts” succeeded in demoralizing the project because it was “impossible”. Or if the politicians decided to defer to special interests. Or if one wealthy banker decided he needed to horde his vast wealth instead of investing it into the local economy. Had the corporations, fear mongers, or special interests had it their way, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge would not exist; at least, not the way it is today with such historical and cultural significance. There is a lesson to be learned from this story.

This brings us back to California's high speed rail proposal. Californian voters originally passed Proposition 1A in 2008 by a 5-point margin, authorizing the state to issue $9.95 billion in general obligation bonds to fund the first phase of high speed rail. (The entire project was projected to have an overall cost of $45 billion.) In 2009, then-Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger applied and received $3.6 billion of federal high speed rail stimulus funding. In 2010, the federal government had diverted an additional $3.2 billion from the states that had rejected high speed rail funds. The plan was going smoothly.

Suddenly, the projected cost had unexpectedly ballooned to a scary $100 billion. Gov. Brown took action and appointed Dan Richard to the California High Speed Rail Authority, who immediately launched public relations campaign to repair the embattled authority's perception with the public and to seek more public input on improving efficiency. Help also came from Bay Area politicians Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, State Senator Joe Simitian, and State Assemblyman Rich Gordon, who proposed a plan for the high speed rail to share tracks with existing Caltrain and Amtrack right-of-ways. The projected cost settled to a much more reasonable $68.5 billion.

The non-profit San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association offered this assessment on future funding sources for high speed rail:

“For the past century, major transportation projects — from bridges to rail — have always been funded with federal dollars. Federal government–supported bonds enabled the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge to be built, for example. And worldwide, major high-speed rail systems are generally built with funding from national governments.

However, given our national political dynamics, where a significant majority of elected leaders do not support government investment in domestic infrastructure, let alone in non-auto modes of travel, it is quite possible that significant federal investment will not materialize. This is not to be taken lightly: A future for the United States without major federal support for transportation projects is frightening and would lead to the further degradation of infrastructure and the loss of the nation’s economic competitiveness.

Unpleasant as it is to contemplate, this is a very tangible scenario we must prepare for. The good news is that even without federal support, California can pay for a high-speed rail system with resources generated within the state.

(emphasis mine)

Yet for all the twists and turns, high speed rail has endured on its path to legislative success, and Californian politicians have a reason to celebrate. And celebrate they do:

California Senate President Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento)

“We've got to build high-speed rail. You can pave the farmlands with new roads and black out skies with airplanes, but then the air we breathe will be no better than a tailpipe.”
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee (D)
“We're not waiting. High-speed rail is the connector for our future investment across the state.”
Governor Jerry Brown (D)
“The world is full of NIMBYs and fearful men. This is a bold move...don't worry about the polls.”
But more importantly, the people of California have an even greater reason to celebrate. As the world's ninth largest economy, we are by far the largest single economic entity worldwide without a high-speed rail infrastructure built or under construction. No longer, we are finally catching up with the rest of the world, including Algeria, Bulgaria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and even Uzbekistan. The plan also has the added benefit of improving existing commuter rail infrastructure in San Francisco and Los Angeles in order to incorporate high speed rail at a later date. For example, high speed rail funds will electrify the decades-old diesel-powered Caltrain fleet that provides commuter rail service up and down the San Francisco peninsula. This badly needed upgrade will speed up Caltrain service and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, providing locals with instant benefits years before high speed rail begin sharing those tracks. Similar upgrades are slated for Los Angeles' Metrolink system. Los Angeles' Union Station will add extra rail lines, and a complete remodel of San Francisco's Transbay Transit Center is already under construction. These simple transit upgrades will result in thousands of jobs. Even if the dream of high speed rail doesn't become fully realized in California – and that's an unfortunate if – jobs will have been created in a sluggish economy, and California's aging public transit system will have been modernized as a result.

In addition, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association offers six reasons why high speed rail will benefit the state. I find the following most compelling:

High-speed rail makes any two places on or near the line that were once far apart appear to be closer together by making travel between them easier and faster. Building a high-speed rail system across California would have a transformative potential on the economies of Northern and Southern California as well as the Central Valley. By decreasing the effective distance between parts of the state, high speed rail shifts the market competitive structure within which people and firms make decisions about where to live, work and invest. In particular, high-speed rail can deliver economic growth opportunities to under-performing places (such as the Central Valley). Not only will the construction stage generate approximately 100,000 jobs for people in the Central Valley, but, once the train is operating, businesses may locate near rail stations to access other business opportunities throughout the state. Considering that the unemployment rates in most Central Valley counties are between 15 and 20 percent, getting people back to work and creating economic infrastructure to support a growing population is imperative.

High-speed trains will improve mobility by saving travel time and reducing congestion as travelers shift from air and auto to rail. California is falling behind its major competitors in the world economy due in part to its continued reliance on inefficient and expensive automobile and air travel. Congestion on our state’s roads results in $18.7 billion annually in lost time and wasted fuel. Flights between the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas are the most delayed in the country, with approximately one out of every four flights late by an hour or more. The alternative to providing the same capacity as high-speed rail is to add 2,300 highway lane miles, four new airport runways and 115 airport gates. The costs of these expansions would exceed $170 billion over the next 20 years, more than twice the cost of the high-speed rail system. The projected number of riders diverted from the air system to the high-speed rail system would be more than 5 million in 2040 and would rise above 6 million by 2060. Based on the experience of Japan and Europe, high-speed trains can secure up to 90 percent of total air traffic for travel up to about 310 miles (slightly less than San Jose to Los Angeles) or half of all air travel for distances up to 500 miles (the distance from San Francisco to San Diego). Overall, from 2040 to 2080, Californians will save an average of 79 million hours per year by using high-speed rail.

High-speed rail reinforces the knowledge economy sector by supporting face-to-face interaction and improved productivity. For the increasingly integrated economies of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, high-speed rail will facilitate greater innovation, exchange and collaboration, particularly because meetings can be continuous from one region to the other, without the hassle and inconvenience of air travel. The additional value of rail simply from the ability to do continuous work is estimated at $10 billion.

(italics mine)

California's high speed rail project and its associated regional transit improvements is probably one of the largest public infrastructure overhaul the state has ever attempted. But these projects will help stimulate California's sagging economy, and any Keynesian will agree. NIMBY-ism is ever present in California, and even now concerted litigation efforts across the state are still seeking to derail the project before the first shovel hits the ground. But high speed rail is badly needed in a state with 32 million registered automobiles and unending congestion on our busiest freeways. Traffic on California's Interstate 5 in the Central Valley (connecting SF to LA) is projected to double in the next 25 years. Ridership on San Francisco's Caltrain commuter rail increased 11% this year over last year, setting a record of more than 50,000 weekday riders per day. We simply can't afford to continue adding lanes and building more roads. California's already humongous population of 37 million is expected to grow to 60 million by 2050. If Caltrain's consistent ridership increases are any indication, demand will soon outstrip supply if California continues to drag its feet on badly needed infrastructure upgrades. When will the NIMBYs learn that the land around high speed rail stations rise in value because of its proximity to transit that can rapidly take them to the social, economic, and cultural centers of the state? By shortening distances, the state will increase productivity, encourage tourism, and allow creativity and entrepreneurship flourish.

Those who argue that automobiles are a mature technology and that roads don't sap money from the state's dry coffers like high speed rail would should think again. Subsidy Scope reports that California spent $17 billion on roads in 2007. Only 31% came from user fees like the gasoline tax. Property and sales taxes (revenue that otherwise could have gone to education or healthcare) had to cover the rest of the cost. Today, California is massively subsidizing our roads to the tune of $9 billion dollars in 2007 alone. And the infrastructure required to incorporate 23 million new residents by 2050 will cost a projected $171 billion to build. That is more than twice the cost of high speed rail and all of its associated regional improvements. Sure, the state will be subsidizing high speed rail for a few years to come. But around the world, high speed rail systems in Japan, Taiwan, France, Russia, and Spain are turning profits. Spain saw the amount of flights between Madrid and Málaga drop in half two years after their first high speed rail line between the two cities opened. Why? People flocked to the option they deemed to be more efficient and less expensive. Spain's experiences with high speed rail is especially relevant to California because the two entities have comparable population densities.

California voters were presented a choice in 2008: continue our unsustainable investment in the gas-guzzling automobile or invest in the cleaner public transportation? The voters chose the latter. Last month, the state's politicians were asked the same question. They too chose the latter. Critics who call high speed rail a 'boondoggle' are wildly mistaken. Its the existing knot of ever-expanding freeways and airport terminals that is an unsustainable boondoggle. Now is time to end this gridlock on common sense infrastructure improvements and move forward for a better California. I thank Governor Brown and the state legislature for having the will to push this thing forward.

Note: This is my first diary, so all suggestions are welcome.

1:14 PM PT: Wow! Having my first diary up on the community spotlight is such an honor. Thanks so much for reading!

Originally posted to Edmund Xu on Mon Aug 20, 2012 at 08:04 AM PDT.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions, DK GreenRoots, Sunday Train, and Community Spotlight.

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