Monday, September 5, 2011

One point of view from the Central Valley about high-speed rail: Inga Barks

This article appeared last month in a Bakersfield newspaper, and I must have missed it.  Inga Barks puts it all very well, that HSR doesn't make any sense not just in the Central Valley, but in all of California.  

She points out that a handful of people will become employed, indeed are employed already (600 contracts with consultants; and very little, if any oversight).  And a few organizations, such as Parson Brinckerhoff and TY Lin will be making tons of money, but the rest of us in California will watch our tax dollars get flushed down this high-speed toilet bowl.

Inga talks about a call-in HSR advocate who says, generously, that it doesn't matter how much it costs, because it's such a great idea.  His name is Ruben. 

Actually I don't blame him for such idiotic thinking; I blame our schools and teachers, both so severely underfunded, for failing to teach critical thinking, and for not contextualizing mathematics into such domains as economics. Ruben is one of the same people who are so easily brainwashed by TV advertising, which is why it's so successful and profitable. The high-speed rail community knows how to sell snake-oil.

It is not Harvard Business School break-through thinking to understand that this, high-speed rail, is the most expensive infrastructure project the United States has ever seen. Just because of its size and grandeur, sounding to Ruben as a great idea, it will have immense waste of funds, expensive slippage, sloppy book-keeping, shoddy work, and all those shenanigans that characterizes all those government sponsored projects so frequently.  How can it be otherwise?

Then you have to figure in the moral and ethical stature of the people involved in promoting this project.  How does that look to you?  The lead government agency, the CHSRA, has had its collective wrist slapped dozens of times. Just about at every single Senate Committee hearing on this newsworthy topic since before the 2008 elections has been an exercise in "crime and punishment." Well, not so much the punishment, since these rail guys have had no obstructions of any consequence put in their path.  

Also other state government agencies have repeatedly produced Santa's list of bad things done by bad boys.  The project is still in the clutches of a series of back-room politicians who do all the hiring and firing.  They are micro-managing this project, contradicting the recommendations of those expensive consultants in which they take so much pride despite their lack of any understanding of transportation issues, transit issues, railroad issues, and the state's deplorable finances.

Now, with Ruthless Roelof Van Ark on board as CEO, things are being driven roughshod over everything and everyone that gets in their way.  The rail authority job, recently fully endorsed by California's current governor, is to press on,  spend the money, and start the construction regardless of the fact that they don't have enough funds to build out a single complete, operational segment, as required by the authorizing legislation (much less the whole damn thing).  Get the money; spend the money.  That's what really matters. Get the project started; whether it's finished or not is somebody else's problem.

INGA BARKS: High-speed rail 'great idea!' -- for some
BY INGA BARKS, Contributing columnist | Saturday, Aug 13 2011 12:00 PM
Last Updated Saturday, Aug 13 2011 12:00 PM

I've been wracking my brain, trying to understand why no matter what anyone says about California high-speed rail, supporters come back with a stepford wife-like response about how great it is. How they trust in a government project, by the very government that's been working on variations of this train since the 1990s, only to come up with 190 miles of an 800-mile route, and local civic leaders who admitted this week that they can't run a dog pound!

And then I had a caller to my radio show Wednesday who answered the question. His name was Ruben, and he was a seemingly reasonable man who said things like "no matter how much it costs, high speed rail is worth it."

When I asked him about homeowners in a proposed route who won't know for years if they'll be displaced, putting them and their property values in a holding pattern, Ruben said, "Houses are losing value right now anyway." When I mentioned the new study that says the 190-mile Central Valley stretch is already over budget, he said, "It's just a great idea." For Ruben, there was no farm land or home too sacred or cost too high because, as he said, "It's a great idea."

That was it! The answer! It doesn't matter what anyone says. It doesn't matter that there are multiple lawsuits against high-speed rail by cities that don't like the plan, or by citizens, both liberal and conservative, who don't believe that the High Speed Rail Authority knows what it's doing. It doesn't matter that the project's own researchers, along with Stanford University and financial experts, say the project is overpriced, has grossly overexaggerated the potential ridership by double, and has few if any investors to shore up the (estimated) $70 billion this train might cost above and beyond the $9 billion bond measure approved by the voters in 2008! None of this matters because the Rubens of the world have it in their heads that it's a "great idea."

And it IS a great idea. But so is winning the lottery! So is 100 percent employment! So is curing cancer! And? So, because it sounds nifty we're willing to set aside the latest research that shows thousands in the Central Valley alone being moved from homes and business, acres and acres of farmland being plowed over, and in more than 300 locations between Bakersfield and Fresno, the noise of a rushing train will impact "sensitive receivers" -- whatever that means. (I'm assuming it's gonna hurt some ears.)

Oh, and my favorite part? Kern County has been informed by the newly released EIR (environmental impact report) that one of its own recommended sites for a HSR maintenance yard puts both noise and hazardous materials within close proximity of schools.

Isn't this the same county that was in a near panic when an oil refinery wanted to use a hazardous material that some claimed would kill everyone within a two-mile radius if spilled! Now, we don't mind putting hazardous materials near school children if we can get to the Bay area quickly?

My theory? Whether high-speed rail ever actually happens, there are billions in state and federal funds to be spent on planning, development, environmental research and consulting. Whether it ever gets built, being able to report that one's political career included hooking the big contract for a train station or maintenance yard is a nice bragging right. 

Whether a track is ever put on the ground, your money is being spent right now to hire people to talk about laying down tracks. And if the research shows that plans for high-speed rail are riddled with problems, all the better! Everyone gets to go back to the drawing board and get paid to talk about new routes, locations and cost. And politicians get to brag about new partnerships that will create many jobs -- at consulting firms and research labs.

My caller Ruben was right. For many, high-speed rail is a "great idea!"

-- Inga Barks is one of three community columnists whose work appears here every Saturday. These are the opinions of Barks, not necessarily The Californian's. You can send e-mail to her at

And here is a break-down of the funds available to be spent in the Central Valley and their sources, brought to you courtesy of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

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