Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Build It, and They Will Come

On July 5th, the California State Assembly approved the issuance of $4.6 billion in state bond funds, and opened the door to obtain an additional 3.3 billion in federal grants, for the first stage of the projected High Speed Rail project, planned to create a rail system connecting Sacramento, and the Bay Area to the Central Valley, and Southern California (Los Angeles and San Diego).

High speed rail has already been developed in Japan and Europe, where trains have become more important and traditionally relied upon than in America, where our interstate and intrastate rail systems have been declining for half a century.

The advent of the automobile in America tended to move other kinds of land-based transportation aside. And the growth of commercial aviation, and not just in America, also had a negative influence on the use and development of alternative kinds of human and goods transport. Our highly elaborated road and freeway system was the primary generator of the post-war boom, facilitating an economic prosperity that flowed across our broad land like life-giving blood. The automobile, of course, transformed our landscape. It caused the decline of our major urban centers, and led to suburbanization. As we moved from an agrarian to a manufacturing economy--and increasingly, now, to a "service-based" economy--the automobile was a two-edged sword, creating convenience and independence, but also congestion, pollution, and--in some respects--a degraded quality of life.

For the last quarter century, or more, there's been a strong reaction against the effects of the triumph of our automobile-based culture. Automobiles are "dirty" technology, and their mass proliferation has fueled rapid, uncontrolled growth. Though many advocate policies which do not place the automobile at the center of our regional and state-wide planning, there are serious reasons to question how alternative transportation models might actually work, especially if society is considering throwing large swaths of its diminishing resources into vast new systems.

The official primary driving motivation behind high speed rail, is the assumption of a continuing growth model for the larger society. California, like much of the American Southwest, has been growing very fast. In the last century and a half, the population, and man's"footprint" has increased exponentially. Though there is usually common agreement about the need to check this increase, most political and business initiatives seem to presume a continuous trajectory of growth, and to assess priorities strictly in terms of unlimited expansion. You will hear advocates of growth speak blandly of "our growing need" for water, waste treatment, highways, services--the whole panoply of human consumption and dependence--as if an endless, open-ended process, without any natural barriers, were to be contemplated. Hardly anyone asks, simply, whether such expansion is either inevitable or necessary, or good. You never hear "practical" solutions which take into account, for instance, the ultimate limitations posed by natural resources. If mankind needs more water, or land, or food, or metal or glass or plastic or wood or garbage dumps, we will just have to continue to find them, develop them and consume them.

This is pretty much the spirit of talk with respect to our transportation networks. Every town and city must have better and better roads, and these conduits must be continually expanded and improved, so that more and more vehicles can use them, and more and more people can be moved from one place to another.

The expansion or "growth" paradigm has been a guiding light to our society for three hundred years. When our continent stood "empty" and inviting at the beginning of colonial times, any kind of expansionism seemed possible, if ambitious. Thinkers of the time thought it might take a thousand years to "fill up" the continent. We know now how wrong they were, how much faster technology and human ingenuity work than they did in the 18th Century.

Our American culture has come to accept the "growth" paradigm as a sacred cow, not to be questioned. Human society must eventually come to resemble bee-hives or termite mounds, as if all our ingenuity should culminate in a crowded, buzzing mass. Nature must be transformed, pushed aside--a total annihilation of the pre-industrial landscape.

The decline of rail in this country took us on a path away from the dominance of large inner cities. America's economic decline paralleled this urban decentralization. The contraction of our tax base and the shrinking middle-class, along with the growing awareness of the scarcity of natural resource and the need to conserve and protect, have brought the permanent growth paradigm into question. The American Dream of continuous expansion, of generational advance, is finally coming to be revealed as the fantasy that it always was. A future model of "prosperity" based on a constant growth in population and consumption of resource is finally coming up against the wall of limits--as it was always destined to do.

And yet we still think, selfishly, complacently, that our economic future lies in expanding our "infrastructure"--and the promotion of rail is one part of that pipe dream. When I was growing up in the 1950's in the Bay Area, there was a train system, the Key System, which connected points along the East Bay corridor, and to San Francisco via the lower deck of the Bay Bridge. This system, which I can distinctly remember taking, with my mother, as a small boy, was efficient and clean. But it was dismantled in 1958, encouraged in large part by the Teamster's Union, which desired to replace it with busses. The AC Transit System, which replaced it, was followed, in turn, by the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (or BART). Despite the existence of AC Transit and BART, and even the Ferry System which still runs between San Francisco and Marin County, vehicular traffic in the Bay Area typically exceeds capacity, suffering from the same congestion and inconvenience experienced in all major American metropolitan centers.

American city planning theory, throughout the post-war period, was based on a reactionary pre-modern European model, medieval in its origins, of a "pedestrian" urban culture, imagined as a vital, intimate, body centered matrix where goods and people mix and interact, casually and naturally, in an atmosphere of mutual interest and trust, of common shared purpose. But this vision was a fantasy. The idea that one could impose a pre-industrial, pre-modern urban paradigm on American cities, fostering pedestrian city centers, by force and regulation, was a manifest disaster wherever it has been tried. With a few exceptions--such as small, utopian communities laid out according to strict diagrams--cities grow "organically" along the transportation grids, accommodating the prevailing modes of movement. Pre-industrial European cities, with their squares, narrow streets and pathways, grew up in a time when walking and riding horses or wagons--or as in Venice, boating--were the prevailing modes. Despite the discrediting evidence of the failure of "retroactive" city planning theory, the anti-modern, anti-vehicular sentiment continues to influence planning and regulation in our time. Cities keep trying to figure out ways of thwarting automobiles and trucks, as if accomplishing this would automatically make their downtowns pleasant, prosperous destinations. But American cities belong to a later epoch: You can't plop down Venice in the middle of Berkeley, California. You can't have San Gimignano in the middle of Chicago. You can't turn downtown Los Angeles into the Left Bank.

The confusion created by the competing visions of the ideal city and its arterial routes is perhaps nowhere more evident today than in California's imagination of the probable value of high speed rail, as a conduit to facilitate movement and commerce between its northern and southern regions. It has been recognized for at least a century that the "interests" of north and south do not coincide, and that this "partisan" separation should be realized by splitting the state into its respective factional regions. Historically, too, there was never very much need to unite the coastal urban centers together. With the existing north/south freeways--5, 99, 101--driving between the two centers has never been an especially daunting proposition. Those wishing or needing immediate access could fly in airplanes. Rather than trying to pull these geographically separated regions closer together with increasingly sophisticated, and expensive, and inconvenient modes of transport, the logical step should be to improve the quality of life within the limits of manageable regional master-plans, strengthening their internal conduits, based on sustainable self-interested initiatives.

And the growth of our communication system--notably the internet and the new advanced phone devices--has drastically reduced the need for business or vacation travel. What may have begun, 30 or 40 years ago, in the imagination of city planners and transportation theorists, of a "bullet train" whizzing up and down the coast, connecting LA and Frisco, now is clearly a pipe-dream, whose practical value has, in many respects, been rendered irrelevant by new technologies. Rather than building in dependencies upon distance and remoteness, regions should become more self-reliant and independent.

As if this weren't frustrating enough, the declining economy and attendant shrinking tax base have left most states in the nation without the means to embark on large public projects. With the enormous short-falls in funding, the state has announced the anticipated indefinite closure of many of its public parks. Many of the roads and freeways, constructed as much as a half century ago, or more, cry out for repair and resurfacing. Our public school system is in a shambles. Police and fire departments are subject to cutbacks. And the existing public transit systems are all financially strained.

Everywhere we look, we see diminishing resources, and yet lawmakers apparently believe that all this is just a temporary set-back. Clinging to the sacred "growth" paradigm, they believe that building another, new, highly costly train system will foster more future growth and prosperity.

But even if this pipe-dream were true, what would the construction of a vast new train system actually cause? We know from historical evidence that transportation routes "create" growth, rather than simply meeting existing needs. The route of the transcontinental railroad "created" towns and cities where there had been none. Old Route 66 was like a charm bracelet, along which commercial centers popped up like weeds. Simply put, connecting towns throughout the planned pathway of the new bullet train would immediately lead to accelerated growth all along the route. Hot outposts in the sweltering Central Valley like Stockton, Modesto, Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield--already easily accessible by car or truck--would all grow in response to the new stimulus. The obvious intent beyond rail connectivity is more growth for all the points along the planned route. Rather than moderating the tendency towards commutation and needless travel and portability, additional rail would encourage population growth, more suburbanization, and "service" industry expansion.

In addition, several uncomfortable facts present themselves. Projections of the cost to the state, originally estimated to be 40 billions of dollars four years ago, have now been revised upward to 68 billion. In a project that is likely to take decades to complete, that estimate will undoubtedly double, and even triple. By 2025, for instance, its cost could zoom upwards to 200 billions of dollars. Questions have been raised about ridership and maintenance. Traditionally, rail ridership in the U.S. has been on a steady decline. What would lead one to expect that Californians would suddenly jump on board a train for a trip to Bakersfield or San Diego, especially if, having arrived there, they immediately needed to rent a car "just to get around" in the most automobile-friendly system in the world? Travel between Los Angeles and points north has been adequately handled by the existing highway systems. A trip between LA and the Bay Area usually can be completed in less than one day with little fuss, and when you arrive you have the convenience of your own car. Even with gas prices pegged at $5 a gallon, that's a thrifty alternative to the inconvenience of a big train. How fast, indeed, might one expect to be able to go, with so many anticipated "stops" along the way? And how much would a system like this one need to charge its riders for the pleasure?--$25? $50? $100? Even paying, say, $50 would seem exorbitant when compared to a small passenger vehicle.

Advocates point to the economic advantages of such a large, open-ended construction project to the state. But large public projects of this kind are usually subject to wasteful overspending, and delays. It's true that lucrative employment of various kinds would be needed, but at what cost? Plopping down a huge new rail corridor involves displacements of various kinds. Many of the communities along the intended route have already decided that they don't want the bullet train to plow through their existing town systems, and are going to court to challenge the eminent domain (or right-of-way) the state intends to invoke.

Finally, the funding for the whole project is in doubt. It's quite likely that, even if construction is initiated, the project won't be completed due to significant budgetary short-falls. Promoters believe, based on past projects of this kind, that once the project is underway, money will somehow be found to complete it. At a time when the state is facing the greatest financial crisis in its history, this is no time to be planning expensive new boondoggles like high speed rail.

My personal belief is that the growth paradigm--based on vast increases in population and economic exploitation of land, resource, and public revenue--which is the driving motive behind high speed rail in California, is pushing us towards disaster. I think we have to move in a different direction.

Accelerated suburban expansion, without significant growth in manufacturing employment, means that the standard of living of the great majority of those living in this state, will steadily decline. That prediction would be true of almost any part of the nation. The distribution of income, the declining middle-class, and the increasing manipulation of government revenues by corporate interests, all point to a condition in which public policy is directed towards the interests of a very few, whose power far exceeds that of the greater population it's intended to serve. That means that those who stand to gain most from a boondoggle like High Speed Rail, will have the most influence on the decision-making process, as was proven last week in the legislature.

Californians don't need high speed rail, but it's being shoved down their throats--in the same way that the unnecessary new eastern span of the Bay Bridge was. Behind the slick public relations campaign run by the contractors, the unions, and the politicians who have federal dollar-$-signs in their eyes, there's a quarter century of cost over-runs, 300 miles and years of messy, inconvenient construction, delays, and a mountain of corruption--all to give us a cool new aerodynamically-contoured toy, poorly patronized, expensive to run, and expensive to ride. Even the most optimistic estimates of completion will mean that most people of retirement age today, won't live to experience the ride. It might take 20 years to complete, and by that time, the scandal of how it was sold to the public will be like a sad old elegy. When completed--if it ever is--it will be another white elephant, made out of greed, credulity, wastefulness and exploitation. Californians have been sold another bill of goods, for which they'll be paying and paying and paying for decades.


Conrad DiDiodato said...

Interesting article, Curtis but,alas, I think poor Dagny Taggart must be turning in her fictional grave. There's something in the rhetoric that seems decidedly un-American. Or perhaps that's just the jaundiced viewpoint of one who's hoping for a Keystone pipeline from us to gas-thirsty you.

Curtis Faville said...


It's true that I'm negative on growth.

I think we're entering a phase in which the quality of our lives won't be enhanced by following the old "all growth is good" model. Certain kinds of growth are good for some few of the people, some of the time, but using growth as a sort of dependable universal principle to front for greed and exploitation is bad policy.

I'm against the pipeline.

I'd like to see our population reduced by at least one-third. I'd like to see automobile production cut world-wide, by at least one-half. That would leave us still with more cars than we know what to do with. Fewer people means less consumption, which is ultimately the direction we want to go. It's folly to think that using up all the resources as fast as we can will lead to some kind of sensible moderation. It will instead lead to devastation and degradation of life.

The culture is chugging ahead full speed with no one at the controls.

Ed Baker said...

we continue to count in the millions
those faithful to this Phantasy of continual growth
and the emancipation of the working/middle class

the only thing growing that is measurable is
our bellys and our cancers ...

let us continue to cater to these fetiches
and take our sue from all of the religious/political propaganda that promises "every thing in the future" for those who invest in this {crap}