Sunday, May 15, 2011

High Speed Rail, You've Got Some 'Splaining To Do

In 2008 Californians decided to borrow $10 billion to pay for a high speed rail (HSR) system to connect the major cities of the state. Proposition 1A passed by a razor-thin majority (52.6%) and I was one of the people who voted against it. Why? Because I don't like ballot initiatives, even for transit, that borrow money without a realistic plan to pay it back.

USC professor James Moore recently slammed the California system in the LA Times. He's much more conservative than I am, but he makes a thoughtful argument that is worth reading. Lisa Schweitzer, another USC professor, also blogged recently about the issue and Moore's editorial. She doesn't seem to go as far in dismissing the concept of HSR, but is firm about need for a credible funding source.

I'm in the latter camp. HSR could have a constructive role to play in our transportation system if it is done well. Part of doing it well is doing it in a manner that is time-competitive with air travel and driving, and that means spending lots of money. We can't just borrow the money. We have to pay that borrowed money back. Where will it come from? In California, because of Proposition 13 of 1978 it takes a 2/3 vote to raise any tax, a threshold that is rarely met. Yet borrowing money can be done on a majority vote. This is not a sustainable system for funding HSR. Otherwise the only option is to cut another area of state spending, and I'm loath to do that to our education and safety net programs, which are already under severe stress and will likely be cut back even more before the year is up. Or maybe the federal government will save the system? Right, the same federal government that is debating whether or not to slash Medicare. It will be years before HSR grants increase significantly, and then only with Democrats or other lefties in power (a far from certain prospect these days).

I also think it's dubious that HSR is more important than transit projects such as the Wilshire Subway Extension, Regional Connector, Expo Line, etc. that are being built within regions, or just plain old transit operating funds, including for bus operations (not sexy, but very useful). These kinds of projects are more important to peoples' day-to-day lives. With all levels of government having limited money, how can billions in HSR spending be justified while funding for more basic transit needs (and to address a variety of social and environmental problems) is inadequate?

Think about demographics too. Who will use HSR? Probably business travelers and people taking vacations. Most of these people have access to the modes of transport that compete with HSR: cars and airplanes. That means, HSR has to be time competitive, or cheaper, to grab a significant share of the market. It's got lower greenhouse gas emissions (assuming reasonably full trains) but don't expect people to act too responsibly on that front.

California HSR advocates need to put out a realistic plan for funding their system. It will be an uphill battle in the current economy, and given the tax-raising constraints of Proposition 13. I'm all for raising the gas tax (as Schweitzer suggests) and cutting federal military spending to free up money. But the problem isn't to convince me, it's to convince everybody else.

I hate to be a bummer, but, we need to figure this out.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Chewy -- Its just possible that HSR isn't a good idea. Not everything the greens like is good. How about ethanol? A bad idea. JVH