High Speed Rail and the Vision Myth

The Los Angeles Times (March 8, 2012) has an article on California’s high-speed rail program that implicitly, if unintentionally and subtley, shows a media bias toward these glitzy projects. The article starts off with the main thesis:

“The bullet trains that would someday streak through California at 220 mph are, in the vision of their most ardent supporters, more than just a transportation system. They are also a means to alter the state’s social, residential and economic fabric.

But those broader ambitions are triggering an increasingly strident ideological backlash to the massive project.

The fast trains connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco would create new communities of high-density apartments and small homes around stations, reducing the suburbanization of California, rail advocates say. That new lifestyle would mean fewer cars and less gasoline consumption, lowering California’s contribution to global warming.

The rail system also would reduce the economic and transportation isolation of the Central Valley, which would grow by 10 million or even 20 million people, according to Gov. Jerry Brown.”

The amount of space devoted to the arguments of the advocates in and of itself is telling, but the real bias is in the framing of the article itself: as a clash of visions. Anytime the core debate over an issue is cast as a conflict over visions of the future, the opposing view is inevitably short changed as advocates of new programs are cast as forward looking and unconstrained by the narrow trappings of current thinking. Thus, high-speed rail proponents are able to sell their nearly $100 billion project without data or evidence, while the critics are cast as reactionaries and obstacles to progress. When core issue is a tug-of-war between competing visions, evidence and data mean little because the discussion is fundamentally about values, not implementation.

Yet, in the case of California High-Speed Rail, an increasingly rising groundswell of opposition to the project is based on evidence and data, not competing visions. The cost of the CA HSR project has gone from under $40 billion when voters were asked to approve funding at the ballot box to nearly $100 billion. At least three independent panels have reviewed the project’s business plan, assumptions and forecasts and found them, to be charitable, wanting. Ridership forecasts are based not only on implausible demographic trends, but unreasonable assumptions about rail’s ability to capture market share among the traveling public and questionable applications to California of the operating experience of facilities in other parts of the world. Choices about alignments and investments have been based on political expediency, not operational efficiency or effectiveness. Politically, the entire project has been a debacle since the ballot initiative. If the issue is cast as a debate over competing visions, these more practical issues can be conveniently sidestepped.

To be fair, the LA Times article mentions a few areas where experts have questioned the efficacy of the program, not just the vision. These two practical criticisms were relegated to a few quotes questioning the forecasts of rising population growth (the state’s population growth won’t grow from today’s 37.5 million people to 60 million by 2050), and HSR’s carbon benefits will take 30 years to achieve rather than 50. But, given the serious questions raised about the CA HSR program’s transparency and costs, these criticism pale in terms of their importance.

The debate over HSR in California is not, for most, a conflict over visions for California’s future. Most of the opposition is rooted in very practical and pragmatic concerns about whether this program even makes sense.

For more on Reason Foundation’s work on high-speed rail in California and elswhere, check out our mass transit topic page.