Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Wrong Reasons for Doing the Wrong Thing: Building High-Speed Rail

What Sam Staley is talking about in his article is why the CHSRA needs public relations so badly and are spending so much of our tax dollars on it.  The rail guys and the Governor of California are selling us something we don't want.  So they put lots of lipstick on this pig, hoping that all we see is the government bringing home the bacon.

We don't.  I urge you to read the LA Times article again, and carefully.

"We are going to have to live closer together" and accommodate growth in more environmentally sustainable ways, Brown said in a recent interview. "The high-speed rail will be built in that vein."

This is the social engineering advocated by my Democratic Party and I resent it deeply.  

No, we are not going to have to live closer together if we choose not to, Governor Brown.  And if this is the reason for building this high-speed rail monstrosity, I resent it even more.  That is, if this train is a government sponsored effort to manage how and where we choose to live, it is an outrageous intrusion in our lives.  It is gross government overstepping its bounds.

The Soviet Union built millions of industrial-type housing units in order to achieve the same thing as a symptom of government efficiency and parsimony.  Today, the Chinese are doing the same thing. The underlying argument is that people all need to sacrifice their individuality for the sake of the common good, as defined by the government.  That is not the purpose of government in our country.

And it is enough reason to oppose this high-speed train. And what makes me even angrier is that because of this high-speed rail project I feel pushed away from the political Left, to the political Right, where I don't want to go. 

I deeply believe in a collective effort for society's betterment, helping those less fortunate than me, supporting those who need support, including the aged and the poor.  I don't believe each person is fated to be totally on their own and the hell with everyone else. I believe that government has a major role to play insofar as it is intended to act on behalf of everyone's well being, not only that of the rich. The high-speed rail project meets none of those criteria.

Governor Brown could and should have chosen a more honorable route with stimulus funds, which, by the way, should have been put to work at least a year ago, not suspended until this lunatic project gets under way, now in 2013. How will that help those unemployed today?  

He could have counter-proposed funding the upgrades of all public mass transit modalities in the two major population regions, increasing their connectivity and seducing commuter drivers out of their daily horrific drives with improved convenience and economy. He could have pushed for investment in the deteriorating infrastructure of this state, the costs of which have been pegged at over $100 billion for repair and restoration.

And, this is the place to say again that what the Governor insists on building is a fancy luxury train for the affluent. It is not a public service commuter train for the rest of us.  It will not lead to a societal transformation; that's all promotional rhetoric for the liberal-minded collectivists.

We do not need a government with public relations conceptions of future visions, shoving a ridiculously overpriced project down our throats.  The voters did not know what they were voting for.  They were not told about the realities behind the vague promises of this glitzy train that would magically transport hundreds of millions of Californians up and down the state at nearly no cost.  They were not told the truth.

Now the truth is out and there should no longer be any question that the project must be terminated, not modified, not bent into local expenditures of political pork, not build in improvised stages when there will be only a first stage.

Mr. Staley has it right. This project is an out of control policy manifestation of social engineering. And it must stop. 

Out of Control Policy Blog

High Speed Rail and the Vision Myth

Samuel Staley
March 10, 2012, 1:43pm

The Los Angeles Times (March 8, 2012) has an article on California's high-speed rail program that implicitly, if unintentionally and subtley, shows a media bias toward these glitzy projects. The article starts off with the main thesis:

"The bullet trains that would someday streak through California at 220 mph are, in the vision of their most ardent supporters, more than just a transportation system. They are also a means to alter the state's social, residential and economic fabric.

But those broader ambitions are triggering an increasingly strident ideological backlash to the massive project.

The fast trains connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco would create new communities of high-density apartments and small homes around stations, reducing the suburbanization of California, rail advocates say. That new lifestyle would mean fewer cars and less gasoline consumption, lowering California's contribution to global warming.

The rail system also would reduce the economic and transportation isolation of the Central Valley, which would grow by 10 million or even 20 million people, according to Gov. Jerry Brown."

The amount of space devoted to the arguments of the advocates in and of itself is telling, but the real bias is in the framing of the article itself: as a clash of visions. Anytime the core debate over an issue is cast as a conflict over visions of the future, the opposing view is inevitably short changed as advocates of new programs are cast as forward looking and unconstrained by the narrow trappings of current thinking. Thus, high-speed rail proponents are able to sell their nearly $100 billion project without data or evidence, while the critics are cast as reactionaries and obstacles to progress. When core issue is a tug-of-war between competing visions, evidence and data mean little because the discussion is fundamentally about values, not implementation.

Yet, in the case of California High-Speed Rail, an increasingly rising groundswell of opposition to the project is based on evidence and data, not competing visions. The cost of the CA HSR project has gone from under $40 billion when voters were asked to approve funding at the ballot box to nearly $100 billion. At least three independent panels have reviewed the project's business plan, assumptions and forecasts and found them, to be charitable, wanting. 

Ridership forecasts are based not only on implausible demographic trends, but unreasonable assumptions about rail's ability to capture market share among the traveling public and questionable applications to California of the operating experience of facilities in other parts of the world. Choices about alignments and investments have been based on political expediency, not operational efficiency or effectiveness. Politically, the entire project has been a debacle since the ballot initiative. If the issue is cast as a debate over competing visions, these more practical issues can be conveniently sidestepped.

To be fair, the LA Times article mentions a few areas where experts have questioned the efficacy of the program, not just the vision. These two practical criticisms were relegated to a few quotes questioning the forecasts of rising population growth (the state's population growth won't grow from today's 37.5 million people to 60 million by 2050), and HSR's carbon benefits will take 30 years to achieve rather than 50. But, given the serious questions raised about the CA HSR program's transparency and costs, these criticism pale in terms of their importance.

The debate over HSR in California is not, for most, a conflict over visions for California's future. Most of the opposition is rooted in very practical and pragmatic concerns about whether this program even makes sense.

For more on Reason Foundation's work on high-speed rail in California and elswhere, check out our mass transit topic page.

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