The San Francisco Chronicle’s John King has a truly fascinating article in Monday’s paper examining the debate over whether to build the Golden Gate Bridge, a debate that reached a head in the fall of 1930 ahead of a public vote to approve bond funding.
Critics depicted the bridge as financially unsound, legally dubious, an aesthetic blight and an engineering hazard in the decade before the start of construction in 1933. The battle was most fierce in the fall of 1930, when voters in six counties were asked to allow $35 million in bond sales for construction.
We know the outcome: one of the few structures in California that genuinely deserves to be called an icon. But, on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the span’s completion, a look back at the fight shows how little has changed in terms of the attacks that are aimed at major alterations to the landscape – and the difficulty that one generation has in predicting how future generations might choose to live and the values they might hold.
The criticisms should sound familiar:
The committee findings soon became fodder for a newspaper advertisement that began “MR. TAXPAYER: This Ad is published to save you money – READ IT.” After all, they echoed what opponents had been saying all along: Things were moving too fast. There were too many unanswered questions. The numbers couldn’t be trusted.
The ad was one of many placed by the Taxpayers’ Committee Against Golden Gate Bridge Bonds. With a membership list that included future Mayor Roger Lapham and City Engineer M.M. O’Shaughnessy, this was no mere collection of gadflies. Such opponents insisted they weren’t against the idea of a bridge, simply the reality of this one.
“I am in favor of a bridge across the Golden Gate if it can be physically and feasibly built,” O’Shaughnessy declared in one ad. His statement then cautioned that toll bridges “too numerous to mention” didn’t generate the traffic necessary to pay the costs of needed maintenance.
This isn’t much different from the reports of the Legislative Analyst’s Office or the anti-HSR NIMBYs in Palo Alto and Atherton who claim that the high speed rail project is being rushed, with too many unanswered questions, and that the project won’t generate the trips necessary to break even on operating costs.
Although the automobile had become a mass form of transportation by 1930, many people still didn’t accept that it would become the dominant method of travel. Looking back on a past they knew well, an era where ferry boats and trains moved people around the region, the bridge’s opponents were convinced that the new era promised by project supporters was nothing more than a delusional and risky fantasy.
Now there wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with relying on ferries and trains to move people around the Bay Area, and today we know well the costs of freeways and automobile dependence. The point here is that we also know the Golden Gate Bridge turned out to be a major success, easily generating the trips required to break even on system operations.
One reason this happened was that the bridge enabled new economic activity, particularly in Marin and Sonoma Counties. By creating a link from those two counties to the San Francisco economy, the bridge brought suburban development to the North Bay and with it the trips needed to fund the bridge’s operation. Again, we can and should debate whether that was the right way to grow Marin and Sonoma Counties, or whether a rail system would have provided better patterns of growth. In fact, the HSR system will promote urban density rather than suburban sprawl, so this time we are getting it right. The fact is, however, that the bridge did work out as forecast.
As King himself explains, this is very similar to the current debate over high speed rail:
What is striking in retrospect isn’t how wrong the arguments turned out to be – the $35 million indeed covered the cost of construction, for instance – but how familiar they still sound: We need more details, the details we do have can’t be trusted, and there are better alternatives.
Look no further than the ongoing campaign against California’s high-speed rail system. Before voters approved bonds to help fund the effort in 2008, opponents depicted it in ballot arguments as a “boondoggle” that would benefit “out-of-state special interests.” Since then they’ve used the environmental review process and other venues to challenge the financing, ridership projections and route of the still-evolving plan.
King’s explanation as to why we’re seeing these criticisms again:
Such rhetoric would have no traction now; a legacy of the 1960s is that people who fight large-scale change aren’t caricatured as old fogies. The presumption is that they’re on the side of the angels, battling gentrification or ecological harm or other threats to the common good.
That’s very similar to the point I recently made, that the media have been trained to see critics of government projects as being heroic when most of the time they’re just being selfish and small-minded.
In a sense, what is needed today is a corrective to the 1960s. The ideologies of urbanism that came from that time were deeply flawed in that they were utterly dependent on fossil fuels and automobiles. What Peninsula NIMBYs are trying to protect is a model that is extremely ruinous for the environment, yet was once defined as somehow being environmentally friendly (at a time when the effect of carbon emissions on the environment was not well known) and efforts to modernize the definition of “environmentalism,” to bring it into alignment with our current realities, are regularly blocked.
Ultimately that’s one of the biggest points of similarity between the high speed rail project and the Golden Gate Bridge – they are both examples of anticipating and meeting future transportation needs that get opposed by people who are just not willing to accept reality. Change isn’t easy. But change is happening, right now. The status quo is bad for the environment and for the economy. HSR is here to help. 75 years from now, I hope Californians can look back at the development of their high speed rail system and look on it with the same sense of success and pride that we view the Golden Gate Bridge.
Robert Cruickshank is the former Chairman of Californians for High Speed Rail and is still a board member of that organization. He also writes on California politics at Calitics.com. You can follow him on Twitter @cruickshank or find him on Facebook. This article originally appeared on the California High Speed Rail blog.