The Politics of High Speed Rail Route Selection

Robert Cruickshank over at the California High Speed Rail blog took issue with my call for political reform to ensure that rail routes, including high speed rail, are as cost-effective and efficient as possible, as defined by maximizing ridership.  Actually he never disagreed with my calls for political reform because he evidently never made it to the end of my blog post. Once I criticized the high speed rail route (as evidence for the need for said political reforms), he apparently stopped reading further and took to Twitter to denounce the post.

I argued in the post that California’s highly decentralized system of government leads to political compromises that undermine the effectiveness of rail routes, including high speed rail. This is what set off Cruickshank, who runs a blog supporting high speed rail. As a result, he never addressed the multiple examples I gave of inefficiencies based on political compromise in the LA and Washington, DC rail systems.

But he did take issue with my assertions about the politically motivated inefficiencies of the high speed rail route.  I call them “inefficiencies” because they hurt system ridership.  The basic idea is that we maximize high speed rail ridership by having the fastest travel time between the two major population centers in the state — Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Any changes from the most direct route possible need to be justified based on ridership increases elsewhere.

Right off the bat, Cruickshank seems confused about how best to maximize high speed rail ridership. “Elkind cannot decide whether he supports increasing ridership overall, or just getting from SF to LA as fast as possible regardless of the consequences,” he writes.  But these are not mutually exclusive concepts. High speed rail should serve the highest population centers in the most efficient way possible in order to maximize ridership.

So here are my three examples of high speed rail route changes that were done for political — not ridership — reasons:

  1. The Pacheco Pass alignment via San Benito County instead of the Altamount Pass along I-580;
  2. The Palmdale/Mojave Desert alignment instead of the Tejon Pass by I-5; and
  3. The eastern Highway 99 San Joaquin Valley route instead of along I-5 in the Valley.

All three routes were designed to serve important political constituencies but not necessarily to serve the maximum number of riders.

Of the three examples, Cruickshank ignored the Palmdale example completely, I assume because it so clearly proves my point and undermines his.  Instead, Cruickshank attacked me for arguing against the Pacheco and Valley alignments.

On Pacheco vs. Altamont, Cruickshank is simply wrong.  The alternate Altamont alignment would serve more people and provide faster service to San Francisco.  It also allows faster service to Sacramento from San Jose and Los Angeles.  Cruickshank never addressed those points and instead fixated on how the Altamont route would “skip” San Jose.  But a spur line to San Jose fixes that problem and leads to faster service to Sacramento from San Jose and Los Angeles.  I don’t see any reason for an overall ridership drop-off with the spur, as Cruickshank fears, especially since it does not preclude electrifying CalTrain to San Francisco and achieving the same medium-speed service already projected for that corridor now.  And meanwhile you get the ridership benefits of faster service elsewhere for more people.

Next he attacks me for the criticizing the Valley route, and here is where it gets more complicated.  To be clear, I stand by my argument that the Valley section was politically chosen, although the greater tragedy is that Valley representatives forced the system to begin there in no-man’s land, leading to a system that will be useless for most Californians for decades to come.

Yet despite the unsavory political origins, I actually agree with this route choice.  Cruickshank describes me as inconsistent here but never asked for my rationale (it wasn’t the point of my blog post so I never spelled it out).  I support high speed rail serving Valley cities like Fresno and Bakersfield, despite slowing the San Francisco to Los Angeles route.  Why?  Because the Valley is the fastest-growing part of California, with long-term population growth projections that would lead to high ridership in the future, and because of the value of connecting medium-distanced cities like Fresno to L.A. and San Francisco, which are too close to fly but too far to drive conveniently.  System ridership overall should benefit in the long-term from this route and make up for lost ridership from the slower service between San Francisco and L.A.

I suppose this is an instance where political negotiations unintentionally produce an acceptable result, although it’s still ‘no way to run a railroad.’  As an aside, you could make a similar argument about Henry Waxman’s opposition to the L.A. Metro Rail as actually producing a positive result: faster service between Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles.  Although it doesn’t justify skipping the Wilshire corridor in Los Angeles.

But even with the Valley alignment, we run the risk that growth-inducing impacts from high speed rail will encourage Los Angeles-like sprawl that will undermine ridership, worsen air quality, chew up open space and farmland, and destroy the point of the system.  That prospect reinforces the need for the political reforms I recommend, particularly regarding density requirements for selected routes.

But then Cruickshank begins arguing with me over something I never said or believed:

Elkind’s post falls into the rather common trap of believing that if the California High Speed Rail Authority had just made different route choices, all would be well. The problem is that his recommendations are contradictory, and even if adopted they’d do nothing to improve the project’s political fortunes.

I made no such claim that my recommendations would solve the high speed rail political problems.  Precisely the opposite: I was showing how in our current system these kind of negative compromises are required to build a train like high speed rail.  My recommendations, clearly stated at the bottom of my post, have nothing to do with route changes and everything to do with political reforms to ensure that we get the best rail route for our money. Cruickshank never addressed those recommendations, which call for density requirements on the route, litigation restrictions, and campaign finance reform.

But his primary interest seems to be to insist that planners, not voters or elected officials, have the final say on what goes where.

Again, Cruickshank puts words in my mouth.  My primary interest is having the most efficient HSR service possible.  We need to reform our decentralized political process that empowers random elected officials to twist the route over the one that benefits the most people.  And part of that decentralization comes from the legal system, with ongoing court challenges to the best routes.

Ultimately, Cruickshank doesn’t seem to think we need any political reforms, although he never addressed the ones I recommended:

California’s democratic processes have produced repeated support for the bullet train. Those who oppose the train have had to resort to end runs around the democratic process, primarily by going to court to try and reverse the decisions of the voters and their legislators.

I assume he’s referring to the ballot initiative in 2008, which would not pass today, and the Legislature disbursing the funds, which required a significant amount of arm-twisting.  With these examples, Cruickshank does not grapple with my point about project implementation: when it comes to actually building and routing the projects, it’s horse-trading and arm-twisting every time, and the public loses.  The result is a less-efficient system that wastes money, time, and opportunities for the millions of people who could otherwise be benefiting from the system.

Cruickshank is clearly a cheerleader for the system route as it currently stands.  And high speed rail clearly needs cheerleaders like Cruickshank.  But sometimes advocates have stronger positions if they are willing to admit — and work to correct — obvious flaws.

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