By Ken Alpern, December 20, 2013
ALPERN AT LARGE-Whether it's a Sacramento County Superior Court judge, a growing number of former high-speed rail supporters, a wizened old lib journalist, a growing legion of those anticipating the Expo Line, or a family struggling to get to their jobs and school via our Metro bus system, the need for "Hope and Change" for California High-Speed Rail has never been greater.
Hope in that a statewide system can someday be implemented, and change in that it can be done legally and sustainably.
Hope in that we can focus and expand on what works, and change in that it can be done in the right order, and in a manner that adheres to the paradigm of "The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good".
Certainly, Governor Jerry Brown, who is truly a visionary, can implement his approach in a top-down, change-the-rules-when-it-serves-his-cause-and-don't-let-the-law-get-in-your-way, easier-to-ask-for-forgiveness-than-for-permission, bait-and-switch approach that President Obama has done with the Affordable Care Act.
Or that former President George W. Bush did with justifying going into, and then taking over and operating the government, of Iraq for the better part of a decade.
Ram it through, make a few true believers happy, and infuriate the majority who rightfully feel betrayed...but their children and grandchildren will thank them, right?
Just like Social Security and the Interstate Highway System, right?
Well...no...not really. The perception of a bait-and-switch never hit Social Security and the Interstate Highway System like we're seeing with the California High-Speed Rail (CAHSR) Initiative, a project for which many (like me) did and still do promote in theory, and for which they voted, but now have strong concerns and a desire to alter the project in a manner more sensitive to our true transportation needs and taxpayers' rights.
George Skelton of the LA Times, hardly a conservative anti-rail fanatic, was entirely correct in promoting that Californians deserve to know how the bullet train will be financed. He quoted the CAHSR Authority chairman, Dan Richard, as acknowledging the voters would never ask for more money at this time ...
... and Skelton also acknowledged, as Governor Brown must know, that polls show the voters would derail this project if they could. We're less than a fourth of the way to having this project funded, and it's really only the first portion of the statewide system truly needed to work well.
My CityWatch contributing colleague, Paul Hatfield, also emphasized and summarized these points in a recent article that underlines what so many of us are thinking--one can be pro-transportation, and pro-high-speed rail, and wonder if THIS project is viable...or is being built in the right order, or with the right expectations.
The need to escape the giddy atmosphere of the past, and to "smell the coffee" and focus on the realistic future, has never been greater. The adherence to issues long-dead, particularly how to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco via a train as fast as a plane, needs to end. It's tunnel vision...train-tunnel vision.
Kind of like how some folks still opine (and whine) about how the right route of the CAHSR project should have been routed via the Altamont Pass instead of the Pacheco Pass, when it's a dead issue and entirely irrelevant to the immediate problem.
I doubt I'm the only one sick of hearing about Altamont vs. Pacheco, and the "Aaaaaltamont, Aaaaaaaltamont, Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaltamont!" screams ignore the other, more urgent needs of the transit-riding (and wannabe transit-riding) communities.
First, Expo Line ridership is higher than ever, with beneficial real estate, commercial and environmental impacts already present and likely to grow more than the doubters ever could imagine ...but not more than those of advocates who predicted such a phenomenon--after all, it parallels the busy I-10 freeway, right?
Second, LA Metro bus riders already have a need for improved service, and they need to know that $60-100 billion or more won't be spent on the CAHSR project before they have their own miserable, long, inefficient commutes addressed. Steve Lopez' column on a family utilizing the Metro bus system indirectly points out a question:
Would this family benefit more from rail projects like the Expo Line, or a rail connection to LAX, or the CAHSR Project?
So shall the CAHSR Project--which has a few smart ideas like rail improvements that would make a big difference to the Amtrak, Caltrain and Metrolink systems--emulate the light rail revolutions of the Expo and Gold Lines, or will it evolve into something more workable, or will it devolve into a debacle and/or destroy the desire to build more rail projects where they are needed, viable and useful?
Certainly, it's OK to admire the Governor for his initiative...but his lack of flexibility and courage makes that admiration harder to sustain. While the hybrid CAHSR project we now have is much, much closer to a project that is more realistic than that presented to the voters, it is still a project that is illegal with respect to the rules and laws in which it was passed, and which will leave it unfundable (and, ergo, unbuildable).
There's nothing wrong with sitting down with voters--and sooner, not later, while there's still a glimmer of hope that high-speed rail will lose sympathy altogether--and asking what can be done with rail connections and expansions throughout the state.
There's also nothing wrong with the Governor proclaiming, "Here is my vision, and here is my map. Perhaps we're doing this in the wrong order, and with higher speeds and expectations than can be realistically done, but it's time for a change that will alter but not scrap this excellent rail infrastructure blueprint for the 21st Century."
Asking the voters to come up with a list of popular rail projects (the Amtrak, Caltrain and Metrolink betterments of the CAHSR project, money to connect our airports with our rail system, and upgrading popular Amtrak routes to prepare for a higher-speed rail network than what we now have) that will cost $10-15 billion but which will halt an increasingly unpopular CAHSR project, is true courage and true vision.
Such a measure, that would presage a higher-speed rail to emphasize local networks in Northern, Central and Southern California, but not a direct competition with air travel between L.A. and S.F. (a stupid, illogical and absolutely untrue paradigm to sell the CAHSR project if ever there was one), would work well, and which would improve our current obsolete system in a manner that would work well with the voters .
... but without all the lawsuits and betrayed voters.
Such a measure would promote good, but not bad revolutions. It would encourage the evolution that makes financial and environmental sense. And it would not create a devolution where growing swaths of the voters learned to distrust anything that rail and other transportation advocates had to say.
It's a painful, but mature choice that needs to be made by a courageous, experience and mature man.
Let's just hope that that man is Governor Jerry Brown.