New Video Reveals Bankruptcy of California High-Speed Rail


If you believe calling your opponents names is a sign that you have lost the argument, then this new high-speed rail commercial from the California Alliance for Jobs – in which unexpectedly macho proponents of the $41 billion, $110 billion $98.5 billion $68.4 billion high-speed rail project deride skeptics as "wimps" – is pretty much the end of the line: 

(Not sure the embed will work: The light-loafered pansies at the Alliance for Jobzzz didn't have the stones to post this as a listed video.)

As it happens, I don't believe calling names concedes the argument. Richard A. Lanham's Handlist of Rhetorical Terms has an entry for "Tapinosis: Undignified language that debases a person or thing." (Lanham does note that the form is "generally considered a vice, not a self-conscious technique.")

What reveals the intellectual bankruptcy of the high-speed rail project is not the insults but that what is supposed to be a rousing propaganda piece comes off like an orientation video for new hires at a failing company. 

The video's cast includes hacks respected citizens from Operating Engineers Local 3, including Alliance for Jobs Executive Director Jim Earp, along with leaders from what's usually referred to as the "business community" whose skill sets cluster around serving on business councils rather than doing any actual business. There's also a career apparatchik and the founder of the "I Will Ride" Student Coalition, who is apparently a UC Merced senior but looks at least a decade too old. 

In addition to repeating moth-eaten but safely nebulous talking points ("We can't accommodate all of our growth with just new freeways and new airports"), California Wasn't Built by Wimps makes the mistake of including a few factual claims. The bankrupt state's bullet train, don'tcha know, will create "tens of thousands of good-paying jobs" while cutting "greenhouse gas emissions by 3.5 million tons annually."

Only tens of thousands of jobs? Just a year ago the president of a trade group claimed it would save or create a million jobs: 

Over the life of the project, more than 1 million jobs will be created, both short-term and permanent. High-speed rail will reduce traffic congestion by saving 8 billion vehicle miles traveled annually. In fact, it will save some 146 million hours currently lost on congested highways. Committed to running on 100 percent renewable energy, high-speed rail will reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 3 million tons annually.

Note that this expert and others differ on how much the bullet train would shave off emissions that contribute to the greenhouse effect carbon footprint global warming climate change. Why not just claim the bullet train will cut 3 trillion tons? Attempts to put an actual figure on greenhouse gas emission cuts are all pie in the sky. A few years back the California High-Speed Rail Authority's own environmental impact statement put the figure at somewhere between 7.5 million tons (with high ridership) and 2.3 million tons (with low ridership). But as a study [pdf] by UC Berkeley researchers has shown, the figure gets less rosy once you count the cost of building and operating the system. And the effects could be even smaller depending on how many people ride the train: 

Depending on occupancy levels in all modes, there are scenarios where HSR will or will not perform environmentally better than the other modes: with 75 percent occupancy, HSR's energy ROI [in terms of energy consumption and emissions of greenhouse gases and sulfur dioxide and compared it to existing modes] is recouped in eight years, its GHG emissions in six years. But at 25 percent occupancy its ROI is infinite. At mid-level occupancy HSR ROI is achieved at 28 years for energy and 71 years for GHG emissions.

The Rail Authority has a notorious record of fudging its ridership expectations. A few years ago the CHSRA hired a company called Cambridge Systematics to make up some projections. An independent check [pdf] of those numbers by UC Berkeley's Institute for Transportation Studies revealed how Cambridge had been fudging its estimates: 

  1. Arbitrary division of trips into long and short trips
  2. Assigning all business trips to the peak period
  3. Incorrect treatment of the panel data set in the main mode choice model
  4. Constraining the headway coefficient in the main mode choice model
  5. Absence of an airport/station choice model
  6. Incorrect calibration of the alternative-specific constants in the mode choice models
  7. Excessive constraining of coefficients in the final models

Recently fired CHSRA chief Roelof van Ark last year sought to address these problems by picking a bunch of his friends to review the ridership methodology, resulting in a new estimate that the State Auditor [pdf] said still had not solved the problem.

Again, why not just claim the Fresno-Bakersfield line will end up carrying 38 million people, the entire population of California, every day? It would be no less accurate than the current claims, which have been made with no data on ticket costs, no comparative studies of existing bullet-train ridership, or anything else that can reasonably pass for due diligence.

Oh, and nobody actually knows where the bullet train will go to or from. (Past, present and possibly future candidates include Corcoran, Borden, Fresno, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and some guy named Dave's rec room.) You wouldn't build a patio with the amount of planning that's gone into the high-speed rail project. 

To proponents, of course, pointing out these problems is just wimping out. Unfortunately, the wimps now include the State Auditor, the Legislative Analyst, ITS Berkeley, the Rail Authority's own peer review group and 64 percent of the voters – who will get a chance to rescind their 2008 vote for bullet train bonds if State Sen. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) gets a new referendum on the ballot. California may not have been built by wimps, but it's full of them now.