Thursday, July 2, 2009

Progress or Voter Folly?

Let’s talk about the California high speed rail line - the object of much excitement and anticipation for some, the true essence of headache for others. More specifically, let’s start by addressing connectivity in the great Golden State. California has two particularly important port locations – in the north and in the south – that have divided the state in two main centers of economic activity. As a student at USC that was born and raised in the Bay, I travel between these major Californian centers several times a year. There are three major ways to travel: automobile, air, and rail. It’s a simple thing to get in the car and drive the 5 or 6 hours, minus the ever-skyrocketing price of gas and the ever-present socially inflicted guilt that comes from depending on your automobile. Air is always an easy option, and certainly the quickest way to travel – as soon as you get through the security lines and finish packing your various liquids into a tiny Ziploc bag. Finally, there’s rail. This is – without a doubt – the biggest headache and most terrible mode of transporting yourself up and down the state. I can’t lie, I haven’t gone through it myself, but from the stories I’ve heard, I wouldn’t want to. For a horrific travel example, consider the article from the New York Times entitled “Getting Up To Speed” by Jon Gertner. This poor man paid $55 – less than a plane ticket but slightly more than a tank of gas - for a trip that took him 13 hours and several transfers. Let’s face it – the rail alternatives that currently exist are entirely sub-par.

High speed trains and light rail are without a doubt the trendiest forms of transportation modes, especially in a time of new infrastructure developments that will literally bring life to this country. President Obama, in what I consider to be one of the most exciting prospects this country could possibly have, has indicated not only his appreciation for the high speed bullet trains of Spain - for example - but has also expressed interest in creating a similar network across the United States. I liken this concept to the federal legislation that brought us our highway system, which was as mind-blowing at the time as these prospects are. The mere thought of the scale and magnitude of such a project is incredible – it would no doubt revolutionize the way we travel across the country. Imagine the speed and ease at which we could travel to all the vast corners on the continental United States.

However, the United States is in an extremely unfavorable position to take on a project like this, and the state of California even more so. There’s the issue of funds, of course – we have none. At least, not to the support the magnitude of a project like this. There’s also an issue of technology; while most European and Asian trains are concerned almost solely with reaching the most ambitious levels of speed, American trains are largely concerned with not crashing. Unfortunately for us, our trains are more likely to crash, exhibited by our system and planning failures that are so often a disappointment. There is a reason that, prior to the 2008 election, the high speed line’s funding was cut by about $26 million to an embarrassingly shrunken $1 million. The plan just isn’t fully baked.

Were the voters of California stupid to support this line during a period of crisis like this? Or is this the only time? Are we out of our element here, or do we need to start developing now? Heaven knows we need new alternatives. However, so-called “ballot-box planning” is not always successful; the common citizen doesn’t have the kind of knowledge that a planning specialist would have, and they tend to ignore the weaknesses that such a specialist may point out. My own hometown is having major problems with some ballot-box planning of their own, and the presence of that lawsuit is my constant reminder to be wary of the madding crowd of local voters. I’m torn – I love to see progress, but I’d hate to see hasty decisions made. Are we equipped for the future of transportation in this state, and beyond that, in this nation?


  1. I agree that there are many unforeseen issues in the development of a light rail system in California and the United States, but I think they are outweighed by the possibilities of access and regional economic activity the system would create. I think the time is now or never, however inconvenient that may be. The development of a light rail system will require strategic coordination on many scales and a progressive governmental approach to transportation unlike any we've seen in our lifetime.

  2. Well I couldn't agree more with your post if this was pre Obama. But beause it's post Obama and the fact that there is more than 1 billion for high speed rail and over 8 billion in TARP funds.

    While I don't support many of the measures and props that were going on during the last cycle I have to agree that by having so much money for high speed rail it'll be easier for ca to get access to that 9 billion dollars. So this will not only change ca economic outlook but spurn new travel and employment patterns.

    If we get good partnerships with the private sector it'll also give the public sector more leverage over future law making and Zoning. Which needs to happen in ca because the politics are so screwed up

    Finally it'll allow ca to stay competetive as a port area when other countries in south America are trying to build ports to take away business from la.

    We need high speed rail to reconnect the freight and work patterns of America and create both long term and short term jobs
    that come with these massive projects.

    By passing the proposition to get high speed rail it let's California better
    compete against other states for that 9 billion dollars of funding put out by the Obama administration. And right now ca needs to compete for the economic miracles that high speed rail projects can bring to this desperate state.

  3. Oh believe me, I don't doubt that we need it. I'm just afraid of what will happen if for any reason the project is, say, stalled unexpectedly. Inflation will drive the cost up, and California is sometimes content to do only half the job instead of waiting until it can do things right. That's what's happening with the new rail lines in L.A., particularly the ever-stalled Expo Line.

    The line's necessary for many reasons, don't get me wrong. It would do us a world of good to invest fully in better rail systems. What I worry about are half-hearted investments - a project like this takes focus. So my question really is whether or not we have the capability along with that focus to really see things be accomplished. On another note, thanks for the comments! I love the input.

  4. First off, I have to say that I highly respect your... shall I say "interest" in this. I don't know many college students that would be talking about such issues outside of a classroom setting. That said, I'd have to agree with Scott. The innovation that the lines bring outweigh the costs. Furthermore, it may have initial problems in funding, but so do a lot of things. I know it doesn't sound all that academic, but if we all waited to be financial secure in order to do something, nothing would get done. Progress requires risk, and in this day and age, it requires financial risk.

  5. Well, regardless of half heartedness or not, the rail line will be completed if it's funded by federal dollars.

    It's the nature of the beast. Alaska consistently get's new airports along its smaller islands and what not despite not needing them. VA constantly gets more funding for the construction of military bases. Towns that are located near military bases often get entire infrastructure overhauls depending on the trip generation. While instead the money used for those projects, which could be easily diverted to other areas such as maintaining, upgrading, or funding the construction of new rail or highway is neglected, regardless of ridership or usage. Anyway, I'm sure you get the point, federal dollars to state projects get built no matter what.

    I agree, if it's a half hearted investment and people do not utilize HSR, there is a great chance that it'll be a waste. But if the construction of HSR can lead to 600 new construction jobs, initially, and 200-400 a month for the next 18 months, there isn't much to lose even if there is zero ridership 2 years from now.

    Worse case scenario, the high speed rail will be used as new freight lines to deliver goods from the respective ports of LA and the Bay area. The fact that LA ports supply 30-40% of all goods sold in the US, means that that the need for efficient freight delivery will always be utilized.

    Instead, I think you touch upon the underlying problem of HSR and that is, the execution of the project. Will we put them on the same routes as present rail lines? Should it be separated from existing rail, should existing rail be upgraded, what will be the speed set for such rail, and what communities could potentially be displaced? Can the bay area support an influx of new workers who change their travel patterns, just like can LA?

    I think esp. since the mayor of Anaheim was just tapped to be in charge of the california high speed rail authority, that HSR will be built and it will be the first probably in the nation.

    This will ultimately shift a lot of noise coming from local groups and rich old people and advocacy groups who want to push their own agenda or practice NIMBY. Federal dollars won't cover the expenses that come from these groups.

    So along with execution of the plan we will have to watch political feasibility and see if we can get all the stakeholders to come to the table and make a committed decision to support the execution and implementation of HSR.

  6. I think it is time LA declares its statehood.