The Los Angeles Times penned a particularly (and there is no other way to say this) stupid editorial yesterday, called “Keep California’s bullet train on track,” in which the Times argues that despite all of the evidence to the contrary, the proposed California bullet train is really a blessing and an excellent value. When you go to the webpage where the editorial is located, the header is entitled “Keeping faith with California’s bullet train,” which is particularly apt if you take Merriam-Webster’s definition of faith as a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”
What is remarkable about the editorial is that is manages to fairly definitively lay out the case for precisely why the high-speed rail project will be a huge waste of time, money and manpower, but then goes on to conclude precisely the opposite. Apparently, the concepts of causation and logic appear to have entirely escaped the collective notice of the Times’ editorial department.
First, the Times acknowledges the recent finding of the independent review panel that concluded what everyone already knew: the project isn’t financially viable. Everyone already knew it because it was obvious from the get-go that the rosy projections of the planners were ridiculous on their face, a fact which was confirmed by the state auditor, inspector general, the legislative analyst and the UC Berkley Institute of Transportation Studies. The paper then acknowledges that no funding source has been identified, the location of the first segment is doomed to fail and running the Fresno to Bakersfield spur will be immensely costly.
The Times then goes on to say that the problem with these problems, is that they are political (i.e., the decisions that led to this point were political and would have been different in other circumstances). Thus, the Times argues, if only the reality were different there wouldn’t be a problem. It is a remarkable concept. The Times is trying to make the case that a fundamentally political decision (whether to build a railroad and where to place it) would succeed if only politics weren’t taken into account. The only way this makes any sense is if one assumes, as the Times apparently does, that the railroad is an absolute necessity and unequivocally beneficial project that nobody in their right mind would object to, and thus the only decisions left to make are technical (where to place the track for maximum efficiency, etc.). Such questions as whether it is a good idea to have a high-speed rail at all, how much it costs to build, how many people it displaces and how much it costs to operate are, apparently, irrelevant to the Times, which has already concluded the complete desirability of the railroad.
This makes the next paragraph of the editorial all the more strange, since here the paper acknowledges that the project is highly risky, is far more costly than people were led to believe when it was proposed, has no source for funding its further development and will arrive years beyond its deadline, if ever. Of course, after listing these negatives, which basically cover every major issue involved with the development of high-speed rail, the Times declares that there isn’t anything new in analysis and thus it is still backing the development of the train. Talk about faith.
So, rather than admit that even if these concerns aren’t new, they are a significant indictment of high-speed rail, the paper instead tries to bring in some outside examples to show how, eventually, high-speed rail will be a wonderful addition to California’s transportation network. First, they compare the project to L.A.’s subway, and claim that if voters hadn’t blocked the development of the subway because of all of the construction mismanagement and cost overruns, they would be enjoying wonderful public transportation. Leaving aside that one has to question, given just how big and sprawling L.A. is, just how much use this mythical subway to the sea would have gotten, and just how much traffic really would have been alleviated by its construction, the Times seems to be relatively untroubled by waste and mismanagement. Apparently, concerns about such things are not legitimate barriers to erecting (perceived) wonderful public-works projects.
The second example the Times digs up is the Big Dig in Boston. According to the Times, Bostonians are now reveling (well, according to the Boston Globe) in the parts of the Big Dig that used to be a highway but which is now a greenway. Also according to the paper, in a few years Bostonians will have forgotten all about the years of traffic jams caused by the construction and the $22 billion spent to put a few miles of above ground road below ground (up from the $2.8 billion it was estimated to have cost at the time it was proposed in the 1980s). To the Times, this is the long-term view of things. After all of the waste, mismanagement, blown out budgets and other disasters associated with the project, if you get some modicum of enjoyment out of it then it was worth it. It is, without a doubt, the stupidest way to judge the success and value of a public-works project ever conceived by man or editorial board.
Of course the people of Boston will enjoy their greenway (paid for, by the way, thank to Tip O’Neil, with money from other states). The issue is not whether people will enjoy the benefits of the Big Dig after all is said and done, the question is whether it was a worthy project on balance. If you come to my small town of 5,000 people and put in the finest amenities (new streets, street lamps, park, gold-plated fountain, light-rail, local airport, new school building, new city hall building, etc.) at exorbitant costs and cause years of construction misery, I will certainly enjoy those amenities at the end of the day, but the question must be asked, should the money have been spent on other, more productive and beneficial activities then, say, a solid gold fountain placed in my local park?
Apparently, the Times is incapable of asking that question, for the editorial then points to, of all things, the Egyptian pyramids as examples of worthwhile endeavors that “seldom come without cost or sacrifice.” According to the editorial, the pharaoh Sneferu had to try to build the first pyramid three times before he finally got it right, with the first two collapsing under their own weight. Then, the Times goes on to say “but who remembers that now?”, and, approvingly, says that the pyramids are now “wonders of the world.” So, to be clear, the Times judges the pyramids – crypts dedicated to kings that serve no functional purpose and which exist only to glorify dead tyrants, built at enormous public expense, using slave or near-slave labor, which probably killed thousands during construction, as wonderfully successful, beneficial and laudable projects because people alive 4,000 years later get to enjoy them as historical artifacts.
There’s no arguing with that logic.