Fox & Hounds has given me a huge opportunity— a three part series on California high speed rail (HSR). HSR is so complex and important that the blank canvas—wonderfully large— is still inadequate, but I’ll do my best.
I will assume basic knowledge of the facts. In Part One, I’ll argue a Republican-conservative case for HSR. In Part Two, I’ll argue against HSR. And in Part Three, I’ll attempt a synthesis.
A Republican-conservative case for California HSR is NOT an oxymoron. The 160 year history of the GOP is replete with support for huge megaprojects. In fact, the current anti-megaproject climate is an exception.
Abraham Lincoln made his reputation as an Illinois lawyer fighting for railroad interests against dual county-state taxation. Lincoln was an Old Whig infrastructure man who joined the Republican Party strongly supportive of building roads, canals and railroads to create economic opportunity for a growing nation.
In 1862 at the height of the Civil War Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act. The Union was in existential crisis yet Lincoln had the courage and vision to approve the Act, which provided huge government loans for each mile of track laid, swaths of free land and 30 year low interest financing.
At the time, many considered the Transcontinental Railway a colossal, exorbitant folly.
In 1919 a young Army officer traveled the transcontinental Lincoln Highway in a convoy and found the US road system wholly inadequate to national defense. That officer, Dwight D. Eisenhower, began the interstate highway system in 1956, with a price tag of $500 billion in current dollars.
By 1961 the interstate project was in serious financial trouble when the Eisenhower 4 cent a gallon gas tax expired. Kennedy rescued the system, by raising the gas tax. The press labeled this, “The Great Highway Robbery.” Déjà vu anyone?
But the 1976 Bicentennial Edition of Life Magazine said, “The Interstate System is the most grandiose and indelible signature that Americans have ever scratched across the face of their land.” And it created a postwar boom of unprecedented proportions.
There is a robust economic argument for high speed rail. HSR is being built all over the world at a rapid pace. China has built over 5,000 miles of HSR in less than a decade, spending $300 billion. The EU is expanding its huge HSR system. Taiwan and Japan are in the game, as is South Korea. Iraq and Iran are planning HSR. Ditto Morocco. Even Zimbabwe is planning HSR, to be funded and built by the Chinese.
The USA is the only major industrial power without HSR. Why?
Do we have secret knowledge that HSR doesn’t work? Is there a mass delusion operating internationally? Or are we geographically unique? No! The America 2050 site convincingly demonstrates that US economic mega-regions (LA to SF is one) are ideal sites for HSR. Our freeways are jammed with cars, our runways and terminals are bursting to overcapacity. And HSR makes great sense for trips between 100 miles (where cars work better) and trips over 700 miles (where jets prevail.)
If Jerry Brown is right—if CA HSR works (and the case is compelling despite critics)— California might surge forward economically.
Our universities can become training centers for HSR. Already, Cal State Bakersfield is inaugurating HSR programs to train engineers. Our Silicon Valley venture capital could finance a huge new industry. Our under-used military-industrial capacity could build train sets, electrical and signaling equipment while our construction industry is building rail infrastructure and our developers breaking ground for new residential, retail and commercial projects driven by HSR.
But there is an equally compelling political argument for Republican-conservative support of HSR which boils down to a simple proposition: HSR will be built, despite our objections. Either now—if CA proponents win the current battles, and they wield tremendous power in Sacramento—or later as the baby boom gives way to millennials who aren’t buying cars and would rather surf their laptops from comfortable seats on high speed trains with a Zipcar at the other end.
If we remain the Party of No on HSR, we stand to lose a generational battle that could cripple the GOP for decades to come. The stakes are as high as they are in the battle for Latinos. In fact, the issues are politically quite similar.
The current GOP is utterly lacking The Vision Thing on millennials. Though it may finally have gotten the memo on Latinos, the GOP remains the party of the white suburbs without an urban-millennial strategy in a demographically altered landscape. We need to become a visionary, coalition party, with room at the table for millenials and for HSR.
Our horizons pinched by fiscal negativism, it’s as if we’ve forgotten that America is in fact an exceptional country and California a state of perpetual big dreamers. To conservatives, the utopian dreams of the left are dangerous fantasies. But if we stop dreaming and we stop thinking big, we cede the future to those who do have a vision. Like Jerry Brown.
Ronald Reagan had a vision. Why have we forgotten this?
The US economy is slowly, steadily coming out of its largest economic shock since the Great Depression. There are massive structural problems that go to out-of-control spending, especially in California. But if the Golden State doesn’t collapse—our collective apocalyptic nightmare—the fractured California Republican Party will sputter out and finally implode.
In 1862 no one could have foreseen the ultimate cost or success of the Transcontinental Railroad. In 1956 no one knew the full economic magnitude or full price tag of the US Interstate System. Likewise in 2013 we cannot see the complete outlines of a future California HSR system linking the state and loosening the economic death grip of a 1960s era, cheap-energy, low-population transportation system.
But it’s never been a good idea to bet against American exceptionalism, American technology or the productive genius of the American capitalist economy.
Without a vision, the people perish. Let’s develop a Republican and conservative infrastructure plan that makes sense and includes HSR, even as a not-fully-funded project for the future.