The High Speed Rail Debate Moves to the New York Times

The New York Times yesterday published a series of six opinion pieces debating the merits of the $90 billion High-Speed Rail plan that would connect Los Angeles to San Francisco. Attacks have intensified on the “bullet train” rail project in recent weeks, focused mainly on the projects gigantic $90 billion budget and a recent audit that called funding for the project “shaky.”  Meanwhile, Governor Jerry Brown has stood firm with his support for the project, there is some momentum to provide voters with a chance to repeal the bonding plan to support the project passed on a statewide ballot initiative in 2008.

Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that four of the six writers at the Times’ website are questioning the value of the project. Streetsblog provides a summary of the six pieces after the jump, but for the full pieces visit “Room for Debate: Does California Need High Speed Rail.”

California Needs a Rail Project, but Not This One – Elizabeth Goldstein Alexis, Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design

Alexis makes the case that it’s not High Speed Rail that’s bad, but the current project and current Construction Authority.  Her closing paragraph pretty much describes the entire piece, “The real challenge is not finances or engineering or cranky neighbors. It is finding the political will to step back and figure out how to make sure public projects are designed for public benefit, not private.”

Dollars for Roads or Dollars for Rail – Emily Rusch, state director for CALPIRG.

CALPIRG has been leading the charge for High Speed Rail since before the bonding proposal passed in 2008.  Rusch swings for the fences, and hits the ball hard.  Her argument, that providing similar transportation capacity for roads or air travel would cost more than High Speed Rail.  In short, the fiscal numbers may be daunting, but not compared to the cost of building the same amount of infrastructure for other modes.

The Right Idea in the Wrong PlaceRick Geddes, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Geddes argues that High Speed Rail is a lofty goal, but that it makes more sense in the Northeast Corridor (from Boston to Washington, D.C.) than it does in California.  Because there is already a rail demand for fast trains in the Northeast, and because land use and transportation plans have created better access to Downtown rail stations; High Speed Rail should be tried 3,000 miles from where it’s currently planned.

One Part of a Larger Plan Shannon Tracey, Northern California field organizer for the Transportation for America coalition

“Does California need High Speed Rail?”  Noting California’s ambitious greenhouse gas plans and directionless statewide transportation planning, Tracey makes the case that California needs the rail line no matter the cost.  After all, there’s more ways to evaluate a project than just dollars and sense, and there are a lot of benefits to High Speed Rail.

We Need Rail Less Than We Used ToBill Davidow, author of “Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet.”

Davidow argues that the ability to transfer information over the Internet makes high speed travel less needed than in generations past.  Basically, Davidow’s argument is that people will use infrastructure such as this rail project when they want a more complete experience, but that business and other “need” travel will be reduced, impacting ridership forecasts.

A Waste of Money for Years to Come –  Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, and author of “Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.”

The title leaves little to the imagination.  Because most of the traffic on California’s freeways are of a more local nature, High Speed Rail won’t address the most congested areas despite its large price tag.

  • J. Goff

    Calif. can use a high-speed rail line, but doesn’t NEED one. As a 30 yr resident of LA area, I could think of 50 things the state needs (for $90 B) more than this right now. And I’m not thrilled with another damned ballot initiative about some tax or bond.

  • Anonymous

    We could completely eliminate freeway traffic congestion simply by converting all existing lanes to express toll lanes. Without traffic congestion, it’s a lot harder to make an argument for high speed rail, or even more freeway lanes.

  • Caleb

    In all the discussions I’ve been reading lately of whether or not California should build high-speed rail, there is a remarkable lack of discussion about the cost of not building it.  Where are the New York Times articles about the astronomical and inflating costs of building more highway lanes, airports and related facilities?  What about the high health and environmental costs of offsetting these modes?  Doing nothing is never free.

  • “Alexis makes the case that it’s not High Speed Rail that’s bad, but the current project and current Construction Authority”

    Ive heard her speak before. That’s a lie she uses to seem reasonable, shes against HSR through and through.

  • Anonymous

    @traal:disqus Of course, if you add those tolls, then you will have enough money to actually build HSR.

  • DJB

    The argument that we’ll just have to build highways and airports instead of HSR doesn’t make much sense. It assumes that we will have the money to build highways and airports, which is far from certain.

    The choice is really 1) HSR, or 2) new highways/airports, or 3) doing nothing. Given how much Californians hate to tax ourselves, and the 2/3 vote requirement for taxes, I’d say doing nothing is a very real possibility.

    HSR needs a CA tax to fund the state’s share of the costs. That’s the elephant in the room. That’s why the financial plans don’t make sense. At the end of the day, if we want this we have to pay the taxes for it, otherwise something else will get cut. And what else can we possibly cut at this point before we start charging people fees to go to high school?

    It’s time to face up to this reality before voters pull the plug on the project.

  • calwatch

    I happened to be in the Central Valley yesterday and there are a couple of things that haven’t yet been brought up – the Central Valley’s deadly tule fog and the cost of maintaining an additional lane on I-5 or SR-99. People drive way too fast during tule fog and so you have those epic 50 or 100 car crashes every year on I-5. And the maintenance of 200-400 more lane miles through rural areas is not going to be that cheap.

  • Rusch may have swung for the fences, but she struck out.  HSR will not eliminate the necessity of improving California’s roads & airports…there will be no “savings” to offset the 100 billion+ cost of the HSR.

  • Another elephant in the room, is energy. HSR proponents claim the project will be environmentally friendly…but those trains are powered by electricity, which comes from…where?  Will we have to construct new power plants, to run it? If so, what type?
    Most of California’s energy comes from natural gas and coal-fired plants.  Or will the HSR be used as an excuse to reverse Calfornia’s moratorium on new nuclear plants?

  • whether we are talking about light rail, subways or high-speed rail, electricity will always be a more flexible and environmentally-friendly form of power than either gasoline for autos or jet fuel for airlines.

  • Brian

    The Authority adopted a policy to contract for 100% renewable energy and just last month presented a Strategic Energy Plan to the board.

  • BettyBlueEyes

    So, when you travel, abua, what kind of energy do you use? Where does it come from? Is it renewable? 

  • BettyBlueEyes

     And your source is… The Cato Institute?? Or some other “think tank” funded by the oil companies?? There is no “elimination” of highway and airport maintenance. Why wouldn’t we maintain what we have? But there is an “elimination” of the necessity to build the highways and airports that would be required without an alternative. I think you’re the one who struck out.

  • BettyBlueEyes

    Then welcome to gridlock worse than what we already have. Believe me, people will not put up with it. They will demand more roads.

  • BettyBlueEyes

     Amen, Caleb. People believe that if they stick their heads in the sand, everything will go away. It’s a good thing the nay-sayers didn’t prevail when we were starting the interstate system… which, by the way, was started in Eisenhower’s home state in the middle of the country. Some people just don’t have vision.

  • Anonymous

    BettyBlueEyes, gridlock is very easy and inexpensive on taxpayers to cure with express toll lanes.

  • Relatively few Americans have had the experience of taking high speed trains. Even fewer have been able to live in a region with a functioning end-to-end transit system. Without those experiences, it’s hard to imagine how convenient it is to roll out of bed on a Saturday morning, hop on the subway to the train station, and be in San Francisco by lunchtime, without pre-planning, security checks, airport hassels, etc. The proposed rail system may not be perfect, but it does provide anchor points for the buildout of all kinds of local networks, and represents only the beginning of a brave new direction for California transport.


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