Just yesterday we listened in as California Gov. Jerry Brown made some truly bizarre arguments for maintaining the state’s high-speed rail initiative despite warnings from every expert analyst, objections from two-thirds of the state’s population, opposition from governments and residents in the bullet train’s path, and the state’s dire fiscal condition. In the past, Brown has likened the railroad project to the Interstate Highway System as well as the Suez and Panama Canals.
But for sheer rail-maddened desperation, even Jerry Brown must take a bow to my former pals on the Los Angeles Times editorial board. In a piece I missed earlier this month entitled "Keeping faith with California's bullet train," the ed board praised the High-Speed Rail project because it is similar to Boston’s notorious Big Dig and the building of the pyramids by slaves:
The project's current political ills remind us of the firestorm that erupted over L.A.'s subway, when sinkholes appeared on Hollywood Boulevard, construction mismanagement led to cost overruns, and voters became so disillusioned with subways that they approved a measure in 1998 forbidding the expenditure of county sales tax money to pay for them ever again. A decade later, they realized how shortsighted they had been; failure to complete a subway to the sea contributed to worsening gridlock on the Westside, and the subway had such clear benefits for riders that its construction troubles were largely forgotten. The result: County voters approved a new measure in 2008 to raise the sales tax to pay for, among other things, more subway construction.
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.
The tradition of the unsigned editorial is one of the many ways the establishment media have found to fulfill their mission of concealing truth from readers. So I can’t say for sure that board member Dan Turner penned this one, though I do know he wrote the classic "Believe in the bullet train" and I’m pretty sure he was the brains behind the more recent "Yes, the price tag has tripled and its completion date is 13 years later. But it's still a gamble worth taking." I always found Dan to be a reasonably inoffensive person to spend the working day around, so I have to ask: Dan, what the fuck? What the fuckity fucking fuck?
Maybe this piece was a type of performance art, with the editorial board deftly poking fun at its own aristocratic indifference to the common folk by choosing the comparison most likely to sound like it came from a spoiled heiress in a play by Oscar Wilde. That’s the only way I can figure the pyramid thing.
As for Boston’s Big Dig, I haven’t been to Beantown in a while, so maybe that "reveling" description (drawn from a 2011 story in the Globe) is accurate. I know Boston’s people and media tend to be boosterish about their burg in a way I always distrust. (One charm of Southern California is that its mightiest thinkers – from Nathanael West to Joan Didion to The Eagles to Roland Emmerich – exclusively depict Lotusland as a corrupt, mindless hellhole deserving of apocalyptic destruction.)
But that stuff about the local subway system is putrid. First, subway building was one of eight "other things" included in 2008’s Measure R, which passed after shenanigans involving creative editing of the opponents’ arguments and the MTA’s illegal use of taxpayer funds for a political campaign. Among the other items were "synchronize traffic signals, repair potholes, improve freeway traffic flow" and something called "community traffic relief." The only thing Measure R proved was that people in L.A. are not happy about traffic.
Second, any discussion of the u-bahn’s "clear benefits for riders" needs to take into account that the number of people riding the entire county rail network has been flat over the last five years and counterintuitively seems to go down during times of economic hardship. Add to this that the Transportation Authority’s own method for counting riders was changed in 2007 and it’s possible the Red Line (the Downtown-to-North Hollywood line singled out for praise by the Times) has seen no growth in usage since 2001.
This still puts the subway ahead of the bullet train, which, according to the most recent laceration by the state auditor [pdf], has made no effort to get a realistic projection of how many people will ride the thing.
I don’t expect the auditor’s analysis or any other objective report on this doomed project to penetrate the skulls of editorial writers. The California High-Speed Rail Authority, after losing the confidence of nearly every transportation reporter in the state, has for the last few years been focusing its PR efforts on newspaper editorial boards.
This pharaonical fandango in the L.A. Times is the most recent fruit of that campaign, but it may be one of the last. The CHSRA recently fired Ogilvy after that ad agency took the authority for $3 million, and the authority’s in-house PR staff has also jumped off the train like hobos fleeing from a railroad cop. The surest sign that this ill-conceived project is coasting toward euthanasia is that its proponents can’t even do wrong right.