California High-Speed Rail – Conspicuous Conservation?5 min read

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As someone who loved riding the high-speed TGV  through France and the Eurostar (Chunnel) trains between Paris and London, and hopes to do it again, I should be cheering the prospect of a California TGV – the proposed “bullet train” between the Bay Area and Southern California.

But with every passing day the vision looks more like a chimera beyond the possibility of realization and the project more like the over-hyped effort of elitists that its opponents accuse it of.

It reminds me of an irreverent (and maybe just a little tongue-in-cheek) paper, called “Conspicuous Conservation: the Prius Effect and Willingness to Pay for Environmental Bona Fides” that circulated earlier this year. Maybe there’s a bullet train effect like the Prius effect.

The title of the paper, by Berkeley doctoral student Steven Sexton and his brother Alison, gives a pretty good idea of their argument. Turning economist Thorsten Veblen’s classic theory about conspicuous consumption – spending more on jewelry, ostentatious homes and other fancy goods to impress people and gain status – on its head, the Sextons argue that some people are now doing roughly the reverse, spending conspicuously more on “green” items like the hybrid Toyota Prius to gain “the status conferred upon demonstration of environmental friendliness.”

They cite reports showing that 57 percent of Prius buyers say their main reason for buying one is that “is says something about me.” Most, they found, maybe not surprisingly, are Democrats.

Is the bullet train a socialized version of the kind of conspicuous conservation that the Sextons write about? Is it also what creates so much resistance from the political right?

In the past couple of years, we’ve had a string of reports about the problems and the misinformation associated with the California’s high-speed rail project. At the heart of those problems was the secrecy and defensiveness of the appointed California High-Speed Rail Authority, which was charged with oversight of the project.

 Just a month a ago a revised business plan, intended to reflect a new level of candor from a reconstituted Rail Authority, owned up to the project’s steeply rising costs – at $98 billion more than double the $43 billion estimate when voters approved $9 billion in rail bonds two years ago. It also acknowledged the declining projections of ridership.

As always, the project was sold as something that wouldn’t cost anything in new taxes, but those bonds – with tens of billions more to come if the thing is ever to be completed – will take huge chunks out of California’s other urgent needs, from higher education to health to social services.  Last week, the Field Poll showed that a large majority of California voters now have second thoughts and want a chance to reverse their earlier vote.

There’s in addition, the likelihood if not the certainty, that a lot of the additional federal funding that the state hoped for won’t materialize; the huge sums, as reported last week by the Sacramento Bee’s David Siders, that the rail authority had been spending on public relations and promotion, and the bitter opposition from many residents, business people and farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, where the first leg of the project is to be built.

Predictably, the location of that section – a 130-mile stretch running from near Bakersfield to near Chowchilla – has earned it the name of the train to nowhere. It was the feds that, as a condition of providing some stimulus money, mandated that the first stretch be built in the Central Valley, probably as a way of ensuring that the urban stretches would eventually be completed, but that hardly makes it less a target for ridicule.

The more fundamental problem, however, is with the vision itself, grand as it seems. Riding Europe’s high-speed trains is a pleasure, not only because of the time saved and the convenience, but because they’re smooth and quiet and infinitely easier to negotiate than air travel.

But California is not Europe, where cities and towns are more densely populated, where there’s more public transportation and where those cities have grown around public transportation corridors for the better part of a century and a half. Most travelers arriving by train at Los Angeles’ Union Station will still have to drive for an hour, and often more, to get to their ultimate destination.

In Europe, fuel taxes have long been higher than they are in this country; city parking is scarcer and negotiating city streets slower and more difficult. Compared to Paris, London or Brussels, driving in Los Angles is a dream.

The backers of the California project are right that gas won’t get any cheaper and that flying won’t become easier. Yet it’s equally possible that, for business people, technology will increasingly reduce the need to shuttle between northern and southern California by any mode of transportation.

There are a lot of things European that America would do well to emulate, health care and children’s services being only the most obvious. We are still far behind in access to broadband technology, and for many Americans, high-speed Internet service is still out of reach. And then there is the glaring matter of education — higher and lower –fields in which we led the world a generation ago, but where we’re falling increasingly further behind. Next to any of them, high-speed rail, attractive as it might be, is an affectation better deferred.

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His newest book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his past work on California Progress Report here.

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