Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why You Should Support The California High-Speed Rail

It's been three years and change since Californians approved Proposition 1A, permitting the sale of $9bn in state bonds to finance the initial stages of a high-speed rail system that would eventually link the four major metro areas of the state together. When Prop 1A passed, albeit narrowly, the enthusiasm among the alt-transport community was almost universal. Now, after several years and several iterations of the HSRA's business plan, enthusiasm is dimming, even among those who are nominally pro-transit. The headline, of course, is the significant increase in the project's "price tag," from $43bn to $99bn. Many people think that the money that would be spend on HSR could be much more beneficially used to build better, more comprehensive local transit systems within the state.

There are two responses to this criticism. One is that, while local transit is critical to our state's future, so is improved intercity travel. HSR and local transit are not an either-or proposition; rather, we need to build and fund both of them if we are to stave off the challenges of the 21st century and emerge as a stronger, more vibrant civilization on the other end. HSR is a complement to local transit in a way that airports and highways are not, allowing for the concentration of transit modes and development around HSR stations, and providing for a center of gravity that will facilitate the densification of sprawling suburban cities. I don't think that the HSR authority's claim of increased commuting between, say, the Central Valley and coastal employment centers is necessarily a good thing for the environment, but I also doubt that it'll be the "killer app" of HSR.

The second criticism, and I think the more damning one, is that we are constrained in our choices by our governing institutions. Simply moving the ~$11bn from HSR to local transit is not presently a choice available to transit activists. Moving the federal portion of the monies to local transit would literally take an act of Congress, and there's a reason that that phrase is synonymous with impossibility. (Considering the current political predilections of the Republican House, it's unlikely that money would move anywhere. It'd either be used for deficit reduction or funneled in to defense or corporate subsidies.) The only place that the federal HSR money can go is into HSR, and if it isn't spent in California, it'll likely be spent on the Chicagoland system currently in development. As I told a friend on Facebook, the choice is between a train in Bakersfield and one in Peoria-- and the one in Peoria won't have state matching funds.

Moving the California portion of the money is even trickier. Technically speaking, there is no California HSR money at present. The bonds have not yet been sold. Their sale is authorized by a ballot initiative, which means that, to stop their sale, we would have to have another ballot initiative to overturn it. That, in and of itself, might work- public opinion towards HSR has not exactly been all that great lately. However, good luck trying to convince Californians to give up their bullet train in exchange for local bus and rail improvements, or to authorize the sale of bonds without matching funds. Prop 1A worked because it provided a very specific framework within which the HSR system had to be built, down to mandating trip times. I strongly doubt that they'd approve an initiative that moved that money into unspecified local public transit, especially when only a tiny minority of them use said transit.

The choice between HSR and local transit is wrong on two levels. First, it's wrong on a conceptual level: we shouldn't be choosing between them, as we need both, and they work together beautifully. Second, it's wrong on a political level, as there is no way that killing HSR will result in beneficial effects for local public transit.

If you balk at the $99bn cost figure-- which has been inflated by the actions of NIMBYs, both in the accounting process of the HSRA and the physical design of the railway-- please see my earlier post on a plausible Minimum Operating Segment of the California HSR system, which could be built for much less cost and attract the support and investment needed to build the full system. But please, if you care about alternative transportation in this state, don't give up on the entire HSR project. This is a critical piece of infrastructure for our state's future, and it will go a long way towards alleviating our dependence on oil-fueled intercity travel


DJB said...

To me the central question is how HSR is going to be paid for. California needs a tax to support the debt service on the bonds, at least until the train is up and running and making a profit. Otherwise the state has to cut from something else to cover the interest, since the state has to balance its budget annually.

Yet another in the list of 1,000,000 reasons why Prop 13 (and it's 2/3 vote requirement for raising taxes) is just about the most frustrating, and important, fact of California politics.

It sucks too, because CA could REALLY use the jobs.

JN said...

Somehow, DJB, I knew you'd comment on this post from the moment I wrote it...

I'm with you. We need to fix the current budget process in California badly, starting with Prop 13 and going from there. I'm hopeful that, if enough progressives organize well enough, the Democrats might be able to clear 2/3 in both houses in 2012 and we can actually get some things done. I'd support a tax to finance the HSR debt service, especially considering we might be able to leverage such a tax into fully funding the system a la Measure R and 30/10.

In the meantime, though, that still isn't the choice that we face. We face the choice to either build the initial segment in the Central Valley, or to oppose it and lose that funding and stimulus. I think that it's critical that we choose the former, and continue working to fix the state's budget process separately from HSR.

DJB said...

In that case, you have to make the case to the people who are preparing to nip the train in the bud. I recently had a chance to listen to Assemblymember Harkey defend her new bill to undo 1A [1]. Very instructive for understanding how the opposition is framing the argument.

I predict that a second vote on borrowing to fund HSR will make it onto the ballot relatively soon, possibly this November. This would have a good chance of passing if public opinion stays constant (based on the Field poll [2]) or becomes less favorable to HSR.

The construction would undoubtedly be good economic stimulus in the short run. But in the long run, what's the point of starting if we can't afford to finish? Is the authority trying to stake-drive (i.e. trying to start the project so that it becomes politically difficult not to finish it for the sake of the money that has already been spent)? Stake driving is a common phenomenon in infrastructure development. Robert Moses was famous for it with his NYC parkways and freeways.

I bet the way this plays out is that CA voters put HSR on hold until we feel more secure about the State's finances. If this happens, HSR backers need to make a strategic retreat and come to the voters again later with a proposal that tackles the hard questions up front and makes a case for the train that more explicitly highlights what is desirable about it from the perspective of conservative values.

[1] http://www.calchannel.com/channel/viewVideo/3222
[2] http://www.field.com/fieldpollonline/subscribers/Rls2400.pdf

DJB said...

Another quick thing: if only the feds were covering 90% of the cost of HSR like they did for the Interstate Highway System (SOCIALISM!!!). In that case this whole discussion would be moot and we could probably break the back of the recession in pretty short order.

But that would require a willingness to do a serious amount of stimulus. (SIGH)

JN said...

I'm tired of making a case for anything in California based on conservative values. This is not a conservative state. Conservative values are not our values. The only reason conservatives have any voice in state politics is the ridiculous gerrymandering of Assembly and Senate districts that has allowed our state legislature to be mis-representative for so long, along with the egregious 2/3 provisions of Prop 13. I'm looking forward to the 2012 elections, under a fair district map, to reveal just how the state seriously feels about the Republican Party. The Dems will probably have 2/3 in the Senate, and might snag it in the Assembly as well. California would be a much better place if that happened.

We need HSR. Hell, we needed it 20 years ago. This project is the defining turning point in our state's development for the 21st Century. It's the difference between embracing the future and doubling down on the past. If "stake-driving" is the answer to getting it built, so be it. I believe that the stimulative effects of the project will more than outweigh the possible drain on the budget it will be in the future.