High-Speed Rail Will Restore California’s “Pioneering Spirit”

Posted on 05 December 2011

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By Bob Balgenorth
State Building and Construction Trades Council

“This project,” the New York Times recently reported on California’s High-Speed Rail plan, “goes to the heart of the state’s pioneering spirit, recalling grand public investments in universities, water systems, roads and parks that once defined California as the leading edge of the nation."

Then, after explaining all the benefits of better transportation, a stronger economy, a boom in employment, a cleaner environment and a higher quality of life, the Times summarized the simplistic opposition of a Republican politician who said: “It’s a boondoggle.”

There, in a nutshell, is our fight.

California urgently needs high-speed rail now, and the new draft 2012 Business Plan spells out how we can finally make this long dream a reality. Our economy needs a more modern, efficient transportation system now. Our environment needs cleaner modes of transportation now. And our workers need the hundreds of thousands of good new jobs high-speed rail will bring right now. Not in a few years, now.

Meanwhile, opponents keep on parroting their party line: “It’s a boondoggle.”

Really? Over the life of the project, more than 1 million jobs will be created, both short-term and permanent. High-speed rail will reduce traffic congestion by saving 8 billion vehicle miles traveled annually. In fact, it will save some 146 million hours currently lost on congested highways. Committed to running on 100 percent renewable energy, high-speed rail will reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 3 million tons annually.

Simply put, California cannot afford not to do this. Our transportation system is already overtaxed and our population will reach 60 million people by mid-century. High-speed rail is the only viable means of making sure our transportation infrastructure can meet our growing demand. Continuing to build more and more freeways and airports would be more expensive, more environmentally damaging, and less efficient for moving millions more Californians up and down our state.

To which our opponents robotically respond: “It’s a boondoggle.”

Apparently they don’t know or don’t care about the benefits of high-speed rail in places like France, Spain, and Japan, where, for corridors with population centers 100-to-500 miles apart, high-speed rail is the most efficient and most preferred mode of transportation. That is precisely the type of corridor that California’s high- speed rail will serve. California and high-speed rail are made for each other!

Without it, we’ll need an additional 2,300 lane-miles of highway, four more major runways and an additional 115 airline gates. Aside from the impracticality of expanding airports, the costs of these measures are prohibitively expensive. And the costs are more than dollars: loss in economic productivity due to lengthening commutes, a lower quality of life from hours sitting in traffic, and poorer air quality because instead of removing cars from the road, we will have added more.

To which, once again, the nay-sayers repeat: “It’s a boondoggle.”

The reality is that the new Business Plan is very careful in its assumptions. The Plan assumes no additional federal funding before 2014. And, though the federal government generally funds about 80 percent of many transportation investments, the first phase of this project only calls for about 61 percent federal funding. Once we have built enough track to begin operating trains, revenues from operations will allow private capital to begin funding future construction.

Hearings are underway in the state Capitol and around the state right now that will lead to the final decision to start building high-speed rail in 2012, restoring California’s great “pioneering spirit” of past generations.

Unless the nay-sayers carry the day with their one buzzword argument: “It’s a boondoggle."

We can’t let that dumb message prevail. So let’s spread the word, to our friends, colleagues, and elected officials. We’ve talked long enough. The “boondoggle” robots are wrong. We can, and must do this. California needs the economic, environmental, and quality of life benefits of high-speed rail, now.


Bob Balgenorth is the president of the California State Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents approximately 350,000 workers in 186 private sector building trades local unions and regional councils.

No need to say it, you repeated the message yourself several times. Talk about repeating the party line, you are still stealing lines from the original environmental plan regarding planes, trains and automobiles. Desperation sets in to the Authority. Yes, did he mention he is on the High Speed Authority board? No, of course not. Jobs created? That means the feds pump a line of gold cash right into Mr. Bagel's pockets. You, sir, ARE the boondoggle. For shame.

Jay Tulock, Vacaville

Let me first say I voted for HSR, estimated at the time to cost $40 billion. That was a few years back; the estimates now are near $100 billion. I'm not surprised by this, as I expected it would increase even when I voted for it.

In concept, I still support HSR. I'm quite familiar with European HSR systems and have ridden them on a few occasions; fast, quiet, comfortable. But, things have changed. WE CANNOT AFFORD TO BUILD HSR AT THIS TIME. To commit to this massive project would clearly be living beyond our means.

We cannot expect or depend on future federal funding, not even in 2014. The looming question is where will the federal government get the funds? They are already stretched. Our economy is NOT just in the doldrums. We have a huge and growing federal debt and high deficit spending, coupled with decreasing tax revenues.

We also have staggering unfunded future obligations that for which no one knows how to fund. We cannot continue to borrow and let debt interest become an even larger part of our federal budget. And, we cannot let the Fed continue printing money, thereby taking the value of the dollar down and sending prices up.

Add to this the problems faced by state and local governments; lower real estate values that have led to lower property tax revenues, and massive unfunded pension obligations that are obliterating even the most basic of public services.

The bottom line? As a nation and as a society, we must get our collective act together and re-prioritize. Easy credit has allowed us to find instant gratification for all our "needs", and we are now up against a financial wall. We must apply the brakes to spending and reassess these "needs" against our ability to pay for them. Putting the brakes on HSR is one MAJOR step in that direction. Yes, an HSR system will cost more in the future, but the alternative to continued overspending will be widespread municipal bankruptcies and a state that is, at least figuratively speaking, also bankrupt.

There are always going to be people who do not have vision, who cannot overcome their need to discourage those who have the foresight and maturity to stand up for needed changes.

When Europe was devastated by the destruction and depression from the aftermath of WWII, they didn't concern themselves with how much money they didn't have to do the things that needed to be done for the sake of putting people to work and building a better future.

The better future will never come unless we take a risk. That risk may appear to be financially irresponsible - it often does appear that way. But the pay off is worth the risk. Just look at any other developed country with HSR (we may be the only one without it) and you'll see this principle at work: if you build it, they will come.

Tera, I concur that there are times when risk taking is necessary. The issue to day is how much risk are we willing to take? Are we willing, and is it wise, to add $100 billion in risk to an economy that is at risk of failure. Our collective debt to income ratio suggests we are greatly over-leveraged.

Regarding Europe's risk-taking after WWII, the U.S. pumped 10% of GDP ($25 billion of $258 billion 1948 GDP) into the rebuilding effort. Today 10% of our GDP would be $1.5 trillion. The U.S. infusion certainly reduced significantly the risk-taking of the European countries.

Additionally, its an apples to oranges comparison. Rebuilding Europe was an absolute necessity in terms of global stability and humanitarian relief. There's no way we can stretch the HSR plan to that level of necessity.

I'd love to see HSR in California and elsewhere in the US. I'm just convinced our governments are at or near their breaking point. At some point we have to ask where can we cut back; what are our absolute needs and how can we bring spending and borrowing into closer alignment?