Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Prof. Richard White of Stanford states bluntly why HSR should NOT be built in California

Here's a great article today that's already making the rounds among all our HSR critics, colleagues and opposers.  It's by Prof. Richard White, who has written extensively and highly critically about the Transcontinental Railroad of the late 19th century.

Not to make a fuss about it, but there are very few points in this article that you haven't already come across in these blog entries, which now number over 1,100. 

1. HSR in California has no source of funding identified. Not federal, not private, not state, not local.
2. HSR will need to be subsidized.  It will never be profitable and will never produce surplus revenues.
3. HSR will never carry the large numbers of people promised and necessary for the success of this train.
4. Like the Transcontinentals, HSR will breed corruption, and has already started to do so.
5. HSR is symptomatic in the US of our great income disparity. Those of wealth have no awareness of the have-nots. And, this train is for the wealthy.
6. HSR will not relieve our clogged roads of traffic congestion, contrary to the claims of the promoters. 
7. HSR's business plans, including the most recent one, are works of fiction and marketing, full of, shall we say, "errors."
8. HSR will not mitigate global warming and is erroneously compared to other GHG producing transit modalities.
9. Contractors, consultants, developers and manufacturers will make huge amounts of money from HSR, while losing huge amounts of (our) money in its operation.
10. If there ever are to be private investors, only they will make money, while simultaneously, the government (taxpayers) gets screwed by bearing all the losses.
11. The HSR project will do great harm to the urban, rural and wilderness environment.
12. HSR serves only the affluent. HSR is not public mass transit.
13. There is not transit demand for passenger luxury rail service between San Francisco and Los Angeles. And if there were, should the taxpayers be building it?
14. Though paid for by taxpayers across the entire United States, the train will not even serve most Californians.
15. But, the most important point made by Prof. White is that the Transcontinental was built by greedy robber barons responsible for the corrupt Gilded Age. Guess what this HSR is all about.

Were you to check back through these blog entries, and before that there were email mass mailings, you would discover that these points have been made by us since 2004.

The great benefit of Prof. White's article is that it comes from a highly respected and credible source. And for that, I am grateful.

Railroaded by high-speed rail?
Richard White
Wednesday, April 4, 2012

High-speed rail in California has just gone through its latest devolution. It has become a lesser version of itself without shedding its greatest problems: It has no clear source of funding; it cannot attract private investment and thus depends on public subsidies. There is no evidence that large numbers of people - and the numbers need to be very large for it to even pay its operating costs - will climb onboard. It remains a "build it, and they will come project."

The transcontinental railroads were also a "build it, and they will come project." "They," however, didn't come for 30 years. Meanwhile, the transcontinentals bred disasters, repeatedly going bankrupt and feeding financial panics that threw the country into serious depressions. They bred the corruption that gave the late 19th century its name: the Gilded Age.

The fate of the transcontinentals resonates because we are in a second Gilded Age of corruption and rising disparities of wealth. But it is the eerie particulars that makes high-speed rail so reminiscent of the transcontinentals.

In the late 19th century, the fat lands between the Missouri River and the 98th meridian needed roads to haul crops east while California needed railroads to haul wheat from the Central Valley to San Francisco Bay for shipping by sea.

Today, both the Bay Area and Los Angeles need local transit to relieve their clogged roads. Gilded Age skeptics pointed out that what the country did not need was expensive subsidized railroads across the interior West that lacked the traffic to sustain them. Skeptics now voice similar doubts about the ultimate traffic between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The transcontinentals tried to assuage such doubts by manufacturing information in one of the great fictional genres of the late 19th century: the annual corporate report. The California High-Speed Rail Authority's publications have proved worthy successors. The authority has succeeded in funneling large amounts of money to consultants and even larger amounts of bad information to the public to assure us that everything will be just fine.

What the consultants - and the contractors, developers, and, if they can get bond guarantees, the banks - know is that enterprises that lose a great deal of money can make insiders vast amounts of money. The transcontinentals perfected this cornerstone of modern corporate development most recently on display in the financial crisis.

In the 1870s, a congressman grasped the essence of schemes to subsidize transcontinentals. The bills were "substantially a proposition to build ... on Government credit without making them the property of the Government when built. If there be profit, the corporations may take it; if there be loss, the Government must bear it."

The details differ with high-speed rail, but the core concept is the same. Whatever profits come from the project will go to corporations; the losses - and there has still not been any convincing argument about why there will not be losses - will go to the public.

The Gilded Age was full of promises of what the transcontinentals would achieve. 

They would secure the Asian trade, but with the Suez Canal, finished the same year as the Pacific Railway, trade went through Egypt not across North America. 

High-speed rail has equally grand promises, including claims to help curb global warming, that are, as studies from UC Berkeley show, grossly overstated.

Much of the harm the transcontinentals did was active: the provocation of unnecessary Indian wars, the eradication of the bison, the collapse of the range cattle industry, the repeated failures of farming on the Great Plains, the production of minerals with no markets in the Rockies.

The harm high-speed rail will do is passive. It will pour money needed elsewhere into what will most likely be an unnecessary luxury largely used by upper middle class people like me. Riders can feel good about themselves while far more necessary projects go unfunded.

To the extent that the latest plan focuses on improving existing rail transportation in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, it is an improvement. But improving on a very bad idea does not make the result a good idea. The costs of very bad ideas are a burden on the future.

Richard White, a professor of American history at Stanford University, is the author of "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America," W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).
This article appeared on page A - 12 of the San Francisco Chronicle
© 2012 Hearst Communications Inc. 

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