Culture Wars Nonsense around the HSR and a Technocratic Answer

The Economist, usually one of my go-to places for sanity, has a piece up on HSR that strikes me as nonsense. Ryan Avent wants to turn the debate around HSR into a ‘culture wars’ thing–what media outlet doesn’t want to turn everything into grist for the culture war?–from everything to HSR to obesity.

Even in assigning blame to the culture war between the technocrats and the haters—those uneducated Americans who hate the elite, and thus, the elite’s fancy dancy HSR system—Avent misses the mark by a long shot. It’s a classic case of “don’t deal with the real policy issues: blame the Republicans and Democrats!”

Why, exactly, should some segments of the US—who are unemployed and low-income and, thus, seldom if ever undertake inter-regional travel—support using tax money to build a new system for people, like me and Avent? Why? Is that opposition really ignorance? What, exactly, is HSR promising people who live in Lubbock, Texas? Or Cairo, Illinois?

Moreover, Avent is just wrong: it’s not just the permanently discontented and iggnerant Tea Party types that think HSR is a bad idea right now. I have a real-deal PhD, and so do a bunch of other people who are concerned, and we’re not on board with the California HSR, for the following, highly technical reason:

California is broke. Broke broke broke. Brokity-broke-broke-broke.

The real situation is worse than that: California is $28 billion in the hole. This Year. Next Year? Next year will be worse. That’s billion with a b. And growing.

So while English writers whinge about Americans’ whinging, they are missing a big part of the financial picture: infrastructure is financed much differently in the US than in Europe. While the US Federal government has some money to put up, states have to put up the rest. That’s a vastly different arrangement than what happened with building HSR in Europe, where the EU has a infrastructure bank.

So if Obama and the Dems want their HSR so damn badly, they should get off their fannies and start making some real-deal progress rather than handing out the 1 and 2 billion amounts that, unfortunately, translate to chump change in the actual funding needed. I favor an infrastructure bank, but having the guts to pursue a small increase in the gas tax would be fine, too. Or going after an general appropriation. Whatever.

Let’s remember: it took $4B to replace the Bay Bridge–alone. One bridge. It took $5 billion to replace the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. One. Bridge.

Secondly, Avent’s whipping out the 100 million population growth number made me laugh. That means we need inter-regional HSR instead of building urban subways or heavy rail? That’s what that number means? It doesn’t make sense. Yes, there will be greater demand for inter-regional travel, but there will be much greater demand for within region travel–there always is. That means if we are gong to spend billions on transit, the resources should be going to urban transit systems first.

But, then, I’m just ignorant.

We note should that even HSR’s supporters, like Senator Alan Lowenthal, have started to question the feasibility of what California is doing. HT to Joseph Cordes on this story.

In this CNBC story, the cost estimate is reported at $43 billion. Now, the last I checked, it was $34B. Was there another announcement that the costs are going to be more than what we promised voters, or is the $43B just a typo?

Oh, hell, what’s $10B among friends? (It’s the GDP of Moldovia).

Finally, I can’t stand it when rail advocates like Avent whine that “rail is held to a standard that no other infrastructure is.” Oh booty hooty hoooooo. Remember the “Bridge to Nowhere?” Remember the “Road to nowhere?” If you want billions in public money for your project, then you need to show people that it’s worth what they are paying for it. Wah wah wah. Schools have to, convention centers have to, health care has had to, every other type of government spending program, with the possible exception of defense and homeland security, has to justify the billions they get. Nobody hands you a blank check, no matter how cool those Chinese trains are.

PS: Where’s all this money you can make from dissing HSR? I’m not getting any. Unlike people who advocate for HSR, who aren’t making any money a’tall. Poor things.


3 Comments

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3 responses to “Culture Wars Nonsense around the HSR and a Technocratic Answer

  1. D King

    You make many great points. I don’t know how HSR became a left/right-elite/bumpkin thing. It’s weird and counterproductive, but seems to come down to a pro-transit/anti-transit argument. Along these lines, I’ve been wondering why it is considered transit at all. Checking the APTA website of transit definitions commuter rail is included, but air travel is not considered transit, nor are cars. I think HSR is considered transit simply because it involves trains. If true, that’s a really sorry justification for transit advocates. At commuter rail distances, HSR is an even worse use of money than it is for inter-city travel.

    A realted point of concern for me is I don’t think HSR advocates have previously considered inter-city travel as something worth thinking about. What advocates (including people like Avent) seem to argue is that current intercity travel options are horrific and there are no economic benefits from the current system of cars, trucks, buses, trains and planes.

    I’m sure you saw this, too:
    http://www.newgeography.com/content/001954-a-billion-dollar-federal-grant-reduce-travel-time-48-minutes

    And the awful central valley people who don’t want the trains to runs through their property for some reason:
    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-high-speed-rail-kings-county-20101221,0,4676136.story

    And from the LA Times story, here is a justification for the HSR system that I assume Avent supports:
    “At the Hanford Amtrak station, retirees Chris and John Sundstrom from Visalia have their overnight bags and are heading to San Francisco for Chris’ 60th birthday. It’s a journey that involves switching to buses in the East Bay. The couple dreams of a day when they can hop on the kind of high-speed trains they’ve ridden in Europe. “It’s like you’re flying you’re going so fast,” Chris Sundstrom says.”

    That’s right Lisa, it’s just like you’re flying. Perfect.

    • I had the same thought you just expressed here–only in passing a few months ago when I was sitting on a panel and one of the people on the panel made this impassioned plea for high speed rail to help out Orange County commuters currently living in traffic hell. I was literally slack-jawed by the end. You mean HSR is meant to be a *commuter system*? Seriously?

      I’m all tore up that retirees might have to spend time on a bus. That’s just…well, that’s a national disgrace right there.

  2. Excellent introduction to a complex subject for us civilians.