Commentary

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.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.