I’ve been traveling around California a lot in the last few weeks – mostly by train – and everywhere I go the most common topic of conversation is gas prices. The relentless march to $5 continues – we blew right past $4 a few weeks ago – but more important than the volatile day-to-day price is the underlying fact that gas prices have risen by nearly 400% in the last nine years. This is due to the phenomenon of peak oil – the shrinking supply and rising global demand for oil. Since the production of oil is at or near its all-time peak, we will have to either reduce our demand or pay ever-rising prices. Simple supply and demand law.
So you would naturally think that any effort to assess the high speed rail project – whose primary selling point is that it allows people to travel between metro areas within our state without being beholden to the ever-rising price of oil – would consider this point. Of course you would be mistaken – the State Senate didn’t mention it at all in their report. Most newspaper editorials on HSR neglect the issue as well.
Not surprisingly the issue is completely ignored by the group that passes for HSR opposition in California. DerailHSR.com is founded by a group of Menlo Park property owners who don’t want high speed trains running near their homes, even though the trains were there LONG before they were (the SP Peninsula route opened to passenger train service in 1863). If these folks wanted to have a discussion about the impact of the train on their property, that’s a fair discussion to have out in the open. But they realize most Californians won’t be moved by their “plight” – the median household income is $84,000 and most homes are valued near or above $1 million. So instead they try to “derail” the HSR project by making spurious claims about its ridership projections, its leaders, even its basic concept.
Recently these opponents published a paper that supposedly debunks the ridership projections on which the HSR project depends. But nowhere in this paper are fuel prices discussed. Nowhere at all. This despite the fact that passenger rail in America is setting ridership records due to high fuel prices.
It is simply not credible to discuss ridership and not include fuel prices in that analysis. On that basis alone the HSR deniers’ paper is worthless.
But the paper is so full of half-truths and misstatements that I would be remiss if I didn’t call those out. After all, if this is what passes for HSR opposition in California, it’s best we nip these ridiculous claims in the bud, before they spread any further. The article states: “Construction costs could be 2 to 3 times projections or $80 to $120 billion instead of $40 billion. Ridership and revenue will probably be one-half to one-third of forecasts.”
Nowhere is any basis for these figures given. The author, Arthur J. Ringham, appears to have made up these figures entirely. He goes on to cite a Danish study that purports to examine an “inherent forecast bias” in transit ridership projections – in other words that transit systems overestimate their projected riderships. But we can look to California to see this is not so. The Metro Orange Line saw 20,000 daily boardings in 2007 – a level they were not expected to reach until 2020! The pro-transit group Light Rail Now! offers a list of light rail lines that exceed their projected riderships – and that study was done in 2001. New lines in Minneapolis and Charlotte, opened in the last few years, have also met projections.
Demand on intercity rail lines in California is also soaring, stretching available capacity to the breaking point as ridership skyrockets. Finally, the airline crisis suggests that high fuel prices will mean fewer flights and higher fares on the LA-SF route, yet another indication that HSR ridership will have little trouble meeting expectations. Taiwan’s new HSR system exceeded ridership projections and turned a profit earlier than was anticipated, and there is every reason to believe the same will occur here in California.
The DerailHSR folks admit that “most claimed benefits depend on ridership” – and so if their criticism of the ridership numbers has little merit, does any of the rest of their argument have merit? Of course not:
“California and Japan are quite different. Japan has far higher population density and shorter distances between major cities, conducive to train travel. Their Bullet train system was well established before freeways, and gasoline has been about twice as expensive in Japan as here. Air fares between major cities within Japan are much higher than rail and a lot more than California air fares for the same distance. Californians have been wedded to cars and freeways for over two generations. It is absurd that California high speed rail travel can even approach its popularity in Japan.”
What isn’t said here is that in Spain – where population densities and distances between major cities are very much like California’s – HSR is a stunning success, having little trouble attracting riders.
The only basis for their ridership claims is a belief that “Californians are wedded to cars and freeways.” As a cursory glance at reality shows, this just isn’t so. Californians were wedded to cheap oil, which made commuting and driving between cities a reasonable proposition. But with the end of cheap oil, Californians are showing themselves to be quite flexible and adaptable. The demand for passenger rail alone, whether in cities or between them, should remove all doubt.
The rest of the HSR deniers’ essay mentions rising costs (yes, the costs will rise, but that is due to global inflation in construction materials – an argument for beginning construction ASAP), and even the threat of derailments along – you guessed it – the Peninsula corridor (no HSR trains have ever caused damage to surrounding homes via derailment). But since their claims on ridership were shown to have no merit, even those easily debunked points don’t matter. If you don’t assess the impact of high gas prices on transit, you are just not credible.
Robert Cruickshank is a historian, activist, and teacher living in Monterey. He is a contributing editor at Calitics.com and works for the Courage Campaign, in addition to teaching political science at Monterey Peninsula College. Currently he is completing his Ph.D. dissertation in US history, on progressive politics in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. A native Californian, he was raised in Orange County and educated at UC Berkeley. This article originally appeared on the California High Speed Rail Blog which he publishes.