In a somewhat rainy day in Southern California, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood spread a little sunshine on California's embattled High Speed Rail project with an upbeat press conference at Los Angeles' Union Station. There was no mention of the Federal Transit Administration's Civil Rights Review of the transit agency currently headed by Villaraigosa. The growing opposition against the $100 billion High Speed Rail Project, which includes Republican politicians in California's legislature and the leadership of the Congressional House of Representatives, was dismissed as a small group of malcontents.
Delivering a "message from President Obama," LaHood set the tone for a defense of the president's vision for High Speeed Rail. ""High speed rail is coming to California," Lahood began. "We will not be dissuaded by the naysayers or those that think that high speed rail is not the next generation of transportation."
Later, noting that the President's vision was larger than just a rail plan for California, LaHood talked of the California project as a model for the nation. "We believe the high speed rail corridor in California will be the role model for high speed rail in the country." Other rail projects won't capture the country's imagination as the California project. For example, the proposed rail project in Illinois would increase rail speed from seventy to one hundred ten miles per hour. California High Speed Rail will run at speeds up to 200 miles per hour.
Responding to complaints from Steve Gregory, a reporter from the conservative news talk radio station KFI, about the costs and ridership projections, Villaraigosa took the microphone to offer his own defense. After noting that projections for Los Angeles' subway and Bus Rapid Transit systems are both well above projections, he pointed both to local benefits of a statewide transit network and to the investments America has historically made in transportation over the decades.
"High Speed Rail in California is the natural extension of the 21st Century transportation system we're building here. For me, this is an easy one. We need to get on this train. We need to stand for the proposition that California needs to lead the way," Villaraigosa opened. "Imagine if they had asked President Eisenhower to cost out the federal highway system in 2012 dollars."
The Mayor's verbal gambit to defend the $100 billion price tag for construction of the high speed rail line was seized on by Dan Richard, the executive director of the High Speed Rail Authority. A recent report by the authority noted that the original $42 billion estimate for a project between Sacramento and San Diego was low. Instead, a $100 billion estimate for a route between San Francisco and Los Angeles was more likely. Richard noted that one third of the price increase was because current projections take into account inflation that is expected over the next thirty years of construction.
Despite the high cost projections for construction, Richard notes that the line will pay for itself during operations.
"All of our analysis shows that ridership will be strong. Every high speed rail project in the world more than pays for its own operations," Richard said in response to a question from a television news reporter. "Even under the most pessimistic projections, we bring in more money than it takes to run the system....none of us wants to launch a system that doesn't have riders."
If the goal of the press event was to change the debate on High Speed Rail from complaints about cost and management to a discussion of the benefits the line will bring, yesterday was a mixed bag. While the press conference was featured on most nightly news telecasts, only one print publication, La Opinion covered the event.
On the way home from the press conference, I listened to Gregory's coverage on the wildly popular "John and Ken Show." While Gregory stuck to playing unedited audio clips of the event, the shows hosts interrupted to lambaste the project as "the biggest waste of taxpayer dollars I've ever seen" and the Secretary as "a buffoon." At the end of the day, rail supporters were probably heartened by the show of political strength for the project, but the skeptics remained just as skeptical as ever.