The political gamble for the HSR markets outside the Central Valley

I talked about the fluffy op-ed from the LA Times the other day, and how they cavalierly conflate various criticisms into one straw man argument that anybody who dares point out the problems are all just short-term haters.

Most annoying in the original Op-Ed is this assumption:

The same phenomenon is already happening in Boston, home of the nation’s most expensive transportation project. The Big Dig highway tunneling scheme was a political catastrophe a few years ago, what with mistakes that prompted severe delays and caused the price tag to skyrocket. Although the Big Dig is nobody’s idea of the right way to build infrastructure, Bostonians are now reveling in a downtown park built on what used to be an expressway, and a tangled traffic mess has been unsnarled. In a few more years, the headaches will probably have been forgotten.

Worthwhile things seldom come without cost or sacrifice. That was as true in ancient times as it is now; pharaoh Sneferu, builder of Egypt’s first pyramids, had to try three times before he got it right, with the first two either collapsing under their own weight or leaning precipitously. But who remembers that now? Not many people have heard of Sneferu, but his pyramids and those of his successors are wonders of the world.

Where to start? First, ask the rest of Massachusetts how much they love the Big Dig because it delayed all of their projects for decades. Even in Boston, there are very nice subway projects that were set back for decades because of the Dig. I’ve always been one of the few defenders of the Big Dig–it started out well-intended justice project–but let’s not be stupid. If they wanted the park area back, they could have just taken the freeway down, been done with it, and saved everybody billions upon billions.

And then, the pyramids? We’re comparing the train the pyramids? Who wrote this Op-Ed? An intern?

I guess pyramids are kind of a good analogue because they were also at the time generally useless, very costly legacy monuments who gained value basically as a tourist curiosity thousands of years later (there is evidence that wealthy Roman toured them) rather than serving a practical function. That is, the pyramids’ main value was political rather than its ostensible function.

The main thrust of the Op-Ed is that pointy-headed experts don’t understand the politics of HSR, which will deliver HSR to the coasts despite all you haters because the train is backed by Little Advocates That Can. Once everybody sees the shiny train in the Central Valley, voters will clamor for theirs and reach into their wallets again for “their share” of the HSR pie.

And there’s a chance the Op-Ed is right on this point at least. Certainly, we’ve seen plenty of rail projects built, particularly suburban systems, based on these types of envy politics.

However, there are plenty–plenty–of orphaned megaprojects out there. Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor project. The Gravina Bridge (the Bridge to Nowhere. Remember that?) About a dozen pod car systems.

Sure, politics carries the ball on lots of rail projects. But there are plenty of stumpy little links of abandoned lines that became too politically difficult to carry forward. Cherrypicking examples of things that did get done doesn’t negate the history of things that never got done.