I recently had a frustrating debate with several friends about the California High Speed Rail project. This is a project in early development that is supposed to link San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles with a high-speed rail corridor.
Based on my reading, this is a project with a lot of problems. A 30 year development schedule, a total cost guaranteed higher than $60 billion (probably more like $120 billion; a referendum sold the project to Californians as costing $33 billion), wildly optimistic total ridership projections (estimates are based on the notion that it will draw more riders than the Paris-Lyons line), and a roundabout route that significantly lengthens total miles traveled, and thus travel times. (High speed rail needs very wide turning radiuses, which means that the train can not go down the coast from SF to LA — the terrain is too broken. So it must detour inland).
My friends knew basically nothing on the subject — they weren’t reading different reports than I was and disagreeing with my analysis of the facts. They just, well, liked the concept of building rail. And I dare say that this is because they are essentially liberal people. For some weird reason, in America, liberals like rail, and conservatives like automobiles and planes. This is moronic.
All major forms of transportation in the US are heavily state-subsidized. There is no libertarian/small government (nor, I suppose, socialist/big government) reason to prefer one of the transportation modalities to the other. And, at risk of pointing out the extremely obvious, trains do not vote for democrats. Planes and automobiles do not vote for republicans.
And yet, the team sports thing is absolutely there. And this is a great example of the ways in which people’s tribal affiliation hurts everyone. If liberals start out with a presumption that any rail project — no matter how ridiculous — is likely worthwhile, then we waste money on stupid, unneeded rail projects. If conservatives start out with a presumption that any rail project — no matter how great — is likely wasteful, then we block useful, worthwhile rail projects. Nobody is winning, here.
California, for the record, could use more rail. All of its major metropolitan areas are underserved by rail. It doesn’t need a high speed rail project that recapitulates a well-served air corridor through terrain hostile to its existence, with no major intermediary towns.
If you disagree with me on that, feel free! But it’d be super-great if people could disagree for actual reasons, and not because they automatically have chosen Team Rail.