Since Kevin Drum’s decided to become a California High-Speed Rail opponent, perhaps I should say more on this. Or, at a minimum, offer some links since Kevin’s post sort of makes it out that this is just some nutty idea being pushed by blogger train enthusiasts:
- Here’s an endorsement from the LA Times.
- Here’s one from the San Francisco Chronicle.
- Here’s one from the San Jose Mercury News.
- Other endorsements from smaller papers can be found here.
- The Sierra Club is for it too.
On the idea that ridership estimates are unrealistically optimistic, it seems to me that the sad reality of politics is that it would be irresponsible for advocates of any large-scale infrastructure project to do anything other than present unrealistically optimistic measures. For better or for worse, that’s politics. Similarly, I never really understand the sentiment that Large Infrastructure Project A shouldn’t be done because Large Infrastructure Project B might be better. Sometimes you really do get asked “should we do A or should we do B” in which case, of course, if B is better than A you ought to answer “B.” Similarly, sometimes doing A really does prevent you from doing B — like if A and B would both require the same right of way. But that’s not generally the case, and it’s certainly not the case when you compare a statewide HSR system to a series of different local transit projects. In general, large infrastructure projects should be evaluated on their own merits. If California HSR is worth doing, then it really doesn’t matter if there may be other transit projects that are also worth doing. You do the HSR, and then you start organizing for the other projects. Doing worthwhile infrastructure projects ultimately grows your capacity to do future infrastructure projects.
For example, it seems that when we started building the Interstate Highway System the first projects funded were a stretch of I-70 in Kansas and a stretch of I-44 in Missouri. I seriously doubt that those two were the highest-value projects conceivable or, indeed, anywhere close to being the highest-value projects conceivable. But the goal of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 was, rightly, not to impose some kind of incredibly strict scrutiny to different projects. Rather, the goal was to make money available for a wide variety of worthwhile projects rather than spending decades tied up in arguments about exactly which highway would be the best one.