As the High-Speed Rail Debate Rages On, Stanford Historian Becomes Big Critic

Photo: California High-Speed Rail Authority
From AP yesterday:

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood strongly defended the federal government’s nearly $4 billion investment in high-speed rail in California, even as growing expenses and a longer timeline for completion have raised doubts in Congress.

During a congressional hearing Tuesday, LaHood acknowledged that the project will be expensive, with current estimates putting the cost at nearly $100 billion over 20 years. Still, LaHood called the project essential.

“We won’t be dissuaded by the naysayers and the critics,” LaHood said.

Speaking of naysayers and critics, you may have to include the 59 percent of California voters who just told the Field Poll they’d now reject the nearly $10 billion high-speed rail bond package approved in 2008.

“If we’re going to run our government by Field Poll, then maybe we ought to just dismantle the legislature and run everything up the ballot any time we do anything,” Jim Earp, the chair of the bond measure’s campaign in 2008, told KQED’s John Myers. “We can either throw [all the money away] and do nothing, or do what we did back in the depression, and build something like the Golden Gate Bridge or the San Francisco Bay Bridge or Shasta Dam.”

Still, there are a lot of people who think the high-speed rail project is not only figuratively, but literally something that’s going nowhere fast. Adding fuel to their fire are a pair of reports critical of the project from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, most recently on November 29.

Another perhaps less-likely HSR pessimist is Richard White, the Pulitzer-Prize-nominated Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford, whose specialty is the American West and whose current book is Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.

White has become a thorn in the side of high-speed rail proponents for his vocal criticisms of the project, two of which you can read here and here.

KQED’s Amy Standen interviewed White in November to find out just why he’s so down on high-speed rail. Here’s an edited transcript of the interview:

What’s your take on high-speed rail?

It will not die, it’s impossible to kill it. The state is going to lose money but construction firms are going to make a great deal of money, land developers around these stations if they ever complete them are going to make money. The governor stands to gain real political capital if they can spend 2 billion in federal dollars to improve employment — the state needs jobs.

But it would be better to dig a very big hole and fill it up again because that won’t cost you anything in the future.

The long-term danger is that you’re going to create a white elephant in the San Joaquin Valley, which is essentially a line we have no need for and in fact there’s no funding currently to put trains on it. It’s never going to be able to sustain itself and the state is going to have to pour good money after bad. The plan now is to make it an Amtrak line, not high-speed rail. To spend $2 billion to do that is frankly ridiculous.

Do you think it’s just the wrong time to build a high-speed rail system or is it the wrong thing period?

I have no objection to high-speed rail routes. You can make a good case for them between Boston and DC. The problem with this one is California is a state that is failing to fund its university system and failing to fund K-12 education. I was in LA last weekend, with infrastructure breaking down right and left. So to propose spending $100 billion on this is frankly ridiculous. Sometime in the future, if you can afford to fund it and make a good public case for doing so, I wouldn’t necessarily oppose it.

Proponents say people like you are ignoring the cost of not building the system, because we have to accommodate projected population growth.

What will high-speed rail do? It’s not going to take pressure off the roads that are most congested. This is a proposal to shuttle people up and down the San Joaquin Valley, between SF and LA, with some stops in between. They’ve left out Sacramento and San Diego already.

And I don’t think it’s going to be able to compete with airline routes. We have fairly efficient airline transportation between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. I don’t see really what good this is going to do.

But we can’t expand Bay Area airports, and flights are often delayed. Those problems aren’t going to go away.

You don’t think there will be delays on train routes?

They’re talking 30 years from now to complete it. So this will not do us any good in the short or medium term. Then you have to maintain it. The proponents act like if you build something incrementally you will not have to continue to pour money into it. But you have to make sure the rails don’t deteriorate, and that the beds don’t deteriorate, that storms don’t damage it.

You can’t afford to build major infrastructure projects and just have them sit there and deteriorate until you’re ready to use them. It’s much cheaper to build them when you use them.

So what would the right time look like?

When Californians are ready to get onto trains. Which they’re not.

It should be built after you take care of the low-hanging fruit. Why not regional transports around SF and LA, projects that will get people off the freeways where they’re the most crowded? I-5 is not pleasant, but I wouldn’t say that it is our major problem in California transportation and that’s all this is going to fix.

Also, this does nothing about trucks. What railways have been good for is freight. That’s what we should be getting off the road. I don’t see passengers as the real problem.

But how can you expect people to want to ride trains if there aren’t any trains to ride? Shouldn’t California provide an environmentally responsible infrastructure, then encourage people to use it?

Anything you paint green in California is going to get you to support it. Many of my colleagues are shocked I’m against high-speed rail.

But the University of Berkeley looked at what happens to the Obama proposal to build high-speed rail across the U.S., and their analysis indicates a one-percent carbon savings. We couldn’t spend that money more effectively to reduce carbon? What you’re falling for is something that looks flashy and people in France and Japan like it. But that’s not the best bang for the buck to get serious about fighting global warming.

What do you think is the difference between America as opposed to Japan and France, where high-speed rail has been successful?

When you take a high-speed rail train in France, from Paris to Lyon, you’ve got an infrastructure of public transportation that gets you to the rail station on time, and when you get off you can simply get on public transportation after. The same goes for Kyoto and Tokyo. That’s not true of SF and LA.

We are building a high-speed rail network without the public transportation at either end of it. You need that because after the high-speed rail ride, people will have to get back in the car and drive a great deal.

The French and Japanese governments subsidize the fares. We have under Prop 1A agreed not to subsidize fares. Those governments also regulate their rail very heavily. We do not have such a great record of giving subsidies and getting public benefits back.

How did you go from history professor to high-speed rail critic?

I reacted to the parallel that’s strong between high-speed rail and the transcontinental railroads. Those railroads were about 30 years premature; they did not make money and the US government had to sue the Central Pacific and Union Pacific in the 1890s to get the money loaned to them back.

In this case there’s seemingly a bar to that happening – California high-speed rail has written into it that there will be no subsidies.

But let’s imagine we have this thing built and no private capital is coming in. What prevents the state from going back to the legislature to say “we need a subsidy to attract private capital?” It will do what all these subsidies do –- guarantee private investors that there will be no risk for their investment. The public will get the risk; the private investors will get the benefit. And I can’t imagine how this will attract private capital without going back to the legislature and guaranteeing the subsidy we promised we wouldn’t.

What drew me out of history is listening to President Obama and other figures justifying this project as a parallel to the transcontinental railroads. I realized they were right -– this was a parallel, and why would we want to make that mistake again? That’s what made me write the first op-ed.

In California we seem to have this idea that we can take on huge projects, that we’re almost our own country. Is that changing?

Well, look at the big infrastructure projects that have worked in California. The interstate highway system: They had a dedicated revenue source to pay for that, plus a gas tax. The dams have subsidized major agricultural interests — in a very unfair way, I think — but at the same time, they built in a revenue source to pay for it, because dams produce power.

High-speed rail says it will have a revenue source with the passengers paying the fare, but that’s laughable. I don’t think anyone in their right mind thinks fares are going to pay for this.

Once you exhaust the federal money and the rest of this has to be paid for by bonds, you will pay huge interest. We only have a small part of the cost funded so far. They’re making up a world in which the federal government will give us more money and the counties and cities will contribute money and then private investment will come in at low interest and absorb the risk. But we’ll absorb the risk; they’ll take the profit, leaving us with the debt. This is a recipe for catastrophe.

Proponents would say you’re making the perfect the enemy of the good.

I’m making the good be the enemy of the impossible. If they could demonstrate that we need these lines where we’re going to build them and there was any hope of paying for them I’d cut them some slack. But they’ve oversold this line so many times I think any California in their right mind would be extremely skeptical of anything the high-speed rail commission says.

You say there’s no good public transportation in California, even in a city like San Francisco. Explain.

The secret to a good public transportation system is you don’t have a schedule, like in NY and Chicago. You just show up and you know that within 10 or 15 minutes something will come along. When you need a schedule and you miss it and you have to wait 45 minutes or so that’s not a real transportation system. In the Peninsula, bus service is for poor people, because they’re the only ones who are desperate enough to wait an hour for the buses to come along. It would be a joke to try to use public transportation on the Peninsula. We should be creating a structure where these things work.

If you want to read a refutation of some of these arguments, take a look at this California High Speed Rail blog post, by Robert Cruickshank. Cruickshank says that an independent peer review found that contrary to White’s assertion, HSR ridership projections are actually sound.

On some of the other issues Professor White raises, Cruickshank writes:

[White] says that the willingness of private investors to step up was overestimated, but that misreads what is going on. The private sector has shown a great deal of interest in the system. They have been consistent in saying that they will not yet step up until there is a significant state and federal contribution.

White argues that the federal government won’t step up, even though Barack Obama has shown consistent support for federal funding, as have Democrats in Congress, and despite polls showing Democrats are likely to retake the House.

White claims that the system will never cover its costs, even though virtually every other HSR system in the world does so, including the Acela.

Amy Standen also talked to Mike Rossi, chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority. Rossi said a lot of the criticism being levied by op-ed writers is based on a shallow reading of the issues and incorrect numbers. Edited transcript of Rossi addressing some other issues below:

The state is practically crippled under its financial strain right now. We’ve tripled tuition across the UC system. We’re laying off teachers and cops. Is this the wrong time to take on something like this?

The legislature and the governor and in some cases the body politic will have to make their decision as to what they’re going to do. I’m not suggesting that high-speed rail is more important than tuition at the University of California. That’s not my role.

I’m putting forth, with my other board members, a realistic business plan so that people now can make whatever judgement they make.

We have every assumption, every piece of data that drives this plan on record open to analysis to anyone, and I’m open to standing and having those conversations because if we’re wrong better to find it out now rather than later. But we want to have that conversation with people who are as transparent as we are in what we’re saying and doing.

What are the consequences of not building high-speed rail?

My view is that if we don’t build high-speed rail, and instead build roads — aside from the 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide that we’ll discharge in the air, besides the 148 million hours of standing in traffic and driving more pollution — trains last for a hundred years and they cover their operating maintenance and capital refreshment. I don’t know any road that does that.

The current business plan relies pretty heavily on private investment, which some critics say is unrealistic. What’s your response?

I will tell you right now, if people can sell future revenues of Elton john concerts, we can sell future revenues of high-speed rail, and at a better discount.

We built the transcontinental railroad in four years.This project is likely to take decades, in part because of lawsuits from communities along the proposed route. Do you ever start to wonder whether we are past the age where we can build big projects?

Ever watch The Maltese Falcon? At the very end of his life, Humphrey Bogart said the last line in the movie was an ad-lib. He said, in referring to the jewel-encrusted statue, “it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.” Well let me tell you something, California is the stuff that dreams are made of. This state is still the most innovative economy in the world and the state that still gets the most foreign investment. We Californians can do big things, period.

  • Anonymous

    “But it would be better to dig a very big hole and fill it up again because that won’t cost you anything in the future.”

    Every HSR line in the world makes a profit within a few years after it opens. Every. Last. One.

    “The problem with this one is California is a state that is failing to fund its university system and failing to fund K-12 education.”

    So a budget crises is a bad time to make a good investment?

    “It’s not going to take pressure off the roads that are most congested.”

    No, but it will add transportation capacity. That’s good for the economy.

    “We have fairly efficient airline transportation between the Bay Area and Los Angeles.”

    Actually, it isn’t very efficient at all. Today’s newest, most fuel efficient airliners only achieve 100 passenger miles per gallon of fuel. Electric high speed rail gets the equivalent of 300-500. Short hops like between the Bay Area and Los Angeles are the least profitable for the airlines. They would replace those flights with branded HSR service in an instant if they could.

    “You don’t think there will be delays on train routes?”

    It takes more than a little weather to stop a train!

    “They’re talking 30 years from now to complete it.”

    So if it won’t benefit our children and grandchildren, it isn’t worth investing in? Is that really the kind of world you want to leave them?

    “When Californians are ready to get onto trains. Which they’re not.”

    Why would Californians prefer to get to the airport 90 minutes early, go through security, wait around at the terminal, board and fly for 1 hour 15 minutes, and then deboard and spend 15 minutes retrieving their luggage (3 hours total), when they can spend 2 hours 40 minutes on the train and be able to use their cell phones and electronic devices throughout the whole trip?

    “The French and Japanese governments subsidize the fares.”

    Not for high speed rail. You’re thinking of their slower passenger trains.

  • Anonymous

    So,
    the actual voters and people of California demand a re-vote on the HSR
    Boondoggle. They are smart, and understand that even the “current
    2011″ construction cost estimate by CAHSRA of $98.5 – 117 Billion is a
    lowball estimate (up from the original $33 Billion sold to voters in 11/08) and
    that the $117 Billion will likely be $350-400 Billion before the money spigot
    is turned off.

     

    And,
    for every dollar wasted on HSR in California, there is one less dollar for K-12
    children in CA, and another $1 raise in CSU and UC Tuition. Hell, the Guv is
    even going to voters to ask themselves to tax themselves in this relentless
    recession, AND AT THE SAME TIME SEEKING TO SPEND OVER $14 -30 BILLION IN THE
    CENTRAL VALLEY ON HSR!!! Once the Boondoggle is started, the mantra will be
    “we’ve already spent $14 Billion, so we must spend more or we will have
    wasted the $14 Billion.

     

    Put
    it to a revote, please listen to the people, or the controlling Democrats in
    Sacramento will see that CA voters: 1. will NOT approve any new taxes; 2. will
    NOT approve any new spending plans by Democrats; 3. but WILL vote in new
    moderate republicans and independents who value K-12 education and children and
    saving CA taxpayer resources, more than appeasing the California Labor
    Federation, and other powerful CA Unions, who are pushing for this HSR train.

     

    Call
    CA State Senators Simitian (916) 651-4011 & Lowenthal (916) 651-4027 &
    Assemblyman Gordon (916) 319-2021 (Simitian, Lowenthal, Gordon control the CA
    HSR funds disbursement) & CA Tresurer Lockyer (916) 653-2995 & CA Gov
    Brown (916) 445-2841 to demand that they end the boondoggle now.

     

    What
    was sold to voters in 11/08 is NOT what the current CAHSRA plan has muted into:
    in 11/08 (sold as $33 Billion completed including San Diego and Sacramento
    & CA liable only for $9 Bill) – now $117 Billion “current”
    estimate and doesn’t included SD or Sacramento) & CA liable for $114
    Billion (since feds only gave $3 billion and $0 from private investors).

     

    Simple
    analogy: Ferrari dealership puts a 430 model up for sale (real cost $275,000)
    but misprints and advertises sale price as $2750.  You sign a contract, pay your $2750, then go to pick it up and
    they say you “owe them” $273,250!!, and since you signed a contract
    for $2750, you are legally bound and can’t break the deal – you must pay!)  BS!! 
    CAHSRA can’t intentionally lowballcosts by $70-80 Billion, sell it to
    voters for $33 Billion “completed” and then come back and say you
    were suckered.

     

    Put it to a re-vote before CA voters/taxpayers and let
    HSR survive (or die) on the merits! Or, it’s illegal bait and switch.

  • Anonymous

    How about this: new law proposed that for every dollar spend, expended, dedicated, or alloted to HSR project, there must first be a corresponding $1 allocated, spent, dedicated or alloted to K-12 children/books/supplies/class size, AND a corresponding $1 reduction in UC and CSU tuition.  Until there is that $1 matching of HSR funds to CA education funds, then no spending on the HSR boondoggle, ever.

    This is why we are racing
    to the bottom in education – this is exactly why.  There is no Money Fairy. 
    There are difficult budget choices. 
    The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst said on 11/29/2011 in his HSR report
    that spending Billions on the HSR Boondoggle will take education money from the
    General Fund – “repeat, there is no Money Fairy” – and this will
    result in larger K-12 class sizes, much larger increases in CSU and UC tuition
    (more than the 26% raise we saw in UC this past 2011), and will result in less
    money to buy books for K-12, as well as cuts to social services and public
    protection. 

     

    How could it not?  HSR is Billions upon Billions, with an
    eventual cost over $350 Billion. 

  • Anonymous

    Mother Jones said on
    8/11/2011 – “California’s HSR Boondoggle – Now More Boondoggly” that the High
    Speed Boondoggle should be killed b/c construction costs ballooned past $117
    Billion.  Mother Jones said:   

     

    “If the cost of the
    entire project balloons at the same pace as the Central Valley section, the SF
    to Anaheim railroad would cost from $63 billion to $87 billion, similar to what
    independent analysts have been predicting. And those figures do not include
    inflation, which could push the final cost toward a staggering $100 billion.
    When CA voters approved the project in 2008, the state said it would cost $33
    billion, but it soared to $43 billion a year later. 

     

    Look, I’m sorry, HSR
    lovers. I love me some HSR, too, but this project is just a fantastic
    boondoggle. It didn’t even make sense with the original cost estimates, and
    it’s now plain that it’s going to cost three or four times more than that.
    What’s more, the ridership estimates are still fantasies, and it won’t be able
    to compete with air travel without large, permanent subsidies. This is just too
    much money to spend on something this dumb. It’s the kind of thing that could
    set back HSR for decades. Sacramento needs to pull the plug on this, and they
    need to pull it now. We have way better uses for this dough.” 
    See here:
    http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2011/08/californias-hsr-boondoggle-now-even-more-boondoggly

Author

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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