From the Sacramento Bee: Viewpoints: High-speed rail plan lacks common sense
High-speed rail's biggest problem isn't high-speed rail but the
people behind it, from backers in Washington to legislators in
Sacramento who approved funding, capped by some rather artless
fist-pumping from Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who seemed
less interested in a better plan than in securing votes needed to pass a
Not that a better plan was in the offing from the
California High-Speed Rail Authority, formed in 1996. The best it has
produced is a business model whose costs have increased as the plan's
It's all been an object lesson in how to ruin a good idea.
There exists plentiful cogent analysis and constructive criticism, as
there should be in any public works project of grand scale, but even at
the most pedestrian level – where most taxpayers live – rarely has
there been a project this size where logic comes to a crashing halt at
nearly every turn.
Consider: If, in 2008, Proposition 1A
had proposed laying that first mile of track between Borden and
Corcoran, voters' reaction would've been, "There's a Borden, Calif.?"
The new route connecting Fresno to Burbank is equally imprudent. Who in Washington insisted on launching in the Central Valley? Who in the Central Valley
benefits from Washington holding federal dollars hostage? Those
blackmailers certainly won't be riding their 160-mile showpiece after
their inaugural outing and perfunctory photo-op. Were it my call, I'd
have told those in Washington to keep their money unless they agreed to
build where we need it, not where they want it.
question is this: If a main goal is to reduce congestion by inducing
motorists to gravitate from driving to riding, why launch in a region
where few people are driving? Fresno is not the Interstate 80 corridor
to San Francisco, or the freeways linking Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and the Grapevine.
Those navigating that trek are what the Census Bureau
calls "extreme commuters" – people traveling 90 minutes or more each
way. More than 3 percent of working Americans do it, almost double the
number from 1990, and the fastest-growing category of worker in America.
Among the regions with the highest number of extreme commuters: Los
Angeles and San Francisco.
Please don't tell me we first need to
build in a flat, unobstructed wilderness where trains at their highest
speeds can be tested and refined. What testing? Systems operating
worldwide have already done that yeoman's work. We tout them as
exemplary models for California. Implement what works best in those
systems and discard what doesn't. Or do high-speed trains function
differently in Fresno than in Barcelona?
Meanwhile, skeptical voters wonder how the governor would willingly borrow billions to support his vision while asking for a tax hike to "save our schools" because the state is broke. That's not vision; it's astigmatism. It's like saying you need to make mortgage payments, so let's buy a Winnebago.
public works project is perfect, but for it to be palatable to the
populace it purports to serve, it has to come with a comprehensible
degree of common sense, and either this plan doesn't have it, or the
people behind it don't know how to sell it.
It's disheartening for me, a huge advocate of rail transit. In New York where I grew up, mass transit
is akin to oxygen, especially for extreme commuters. Systems in
Washington, D.C., Boston and Chicago make those cities a pleasure to
navigate. The Altamont Commuter Express trains proved a boon to
development from Tracy to Stockton, providing a critical option for
those employed in the Silicon Valley who couldn't afford Silicon Valley
home prices. As a freeway alternative, the Capitol Corridor continues
to increase ridership and revenue. Surely, there's a lesson in these
And sadly, America used to build things. From the Panama Canal to countless infrastructure projects undertaken under Franklin Roosevelt, who originally envisioned the federal highway system that Dwight Eisenhower carried to legislative fruition in 1956.
In the 1960s, not a day passed without stories about space travel or an exhibit that touched on the idea of "The Home of Tomorrow," "The City of Tomorrow," "The Transportation of Tomorrow."
is the tomorrow of today? In Afghanistan, costing us $5.3 billion a
month, nearly the amount the Legislature approved to fund the first leg
of a rail project? The F-22 Raptor? Since entering service in 2005,
we've spent $77 billion on a fleet of 187 that has yet to see combat,
isn't expected to any time soon and has been repeatedly grounded over
oxygen system problems no one can resolve.
I'd like to think most
of us would agree to do big things provided we choose the best path for
doing them, but I'm not sure. Mostly, it seems what we do best anymore
is make excuses to justify not doing anything.