Lessons from the Golden State
By Scott Sumner
In many ways, California is the ideal place to build a high-speed rail line. The state has two giant metro areas, separated by 380 miles, which is the “sweet spot” for high-speed rail. A high-speed rail line could (theoretically) cover that distance in less than 2 hours, which makes it competitive with air travel. (The actual proposal was much slower.)
California has many other advantages as well. Governor Jerry Brown was an enthusiastic advocate. The state is completely dominated by the Democratic Party, with the environmental wing of the party being especially powerful. California is home to the world’s wealthiest industry (tech) and is able to impose very high income taxes on the rich without suffering a mass migration to cheaper states, due to its enviable climate and lifestyle. They’ve got enough money.
California is an almost perfect place to build high-speed rail.
And yet it will probably never happen. The new governor has put most of the project on hold, and most experts seem to think this is just a polite way of pulling the plug on the project.
“Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were. However, we do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.”
There are important lessons here for progressives, who have been pushing for exactly this sort of infrastructure project. In short, progressives have not faced up to a number of difficult choices:
1. The choice between strict environmental regulations for major construction projects, and the goal of building environmentally friendly infrastructure.
2. The choice between pro-union labor policies and building affordable infrastructure.
3. The choice between high levels of spending on human services and building infrastructure.
4. The choice between wildly excessive safety regulations, and efficient transport services that are “safe enough”. For instance, it took decades for our transportation regulators to approve lightweight rail cars that had been used in Europe for many years. Penn Station’s Amtrak station has long lines due to utterly useless passenger checks in the terminal, even as “terrorists” could freely board the same train without any ID checks a few miles down the road in Connecticut.)
A society often makes a choice by not making choices. The progressives have chosen to keep intact some wildly excessive regulatory burdens on getting environmental approval for new projects, instead of limiting the environmental review to no more than 6 months. They have chosen to use expensive American union labor and inefficient US builders rather than more efficient foreign builders using labor from China and Bangladesh. They have chosen to spend lots of money on human services, leaving little money for building infrastructure. By making these choices, progressives have implicitly revealed that infrastructure is not a high priority to them. We are not Singapore.
And it’s not just progressives. The long environmental review process caused conservative Orange County to abandon a much needed airport project that had previously been approved by the voters.
In previous posts, I’ve argued that it would be foolish for the federal government to spend lots of money on infrastructure, partly because America no longer knows how to build infrastructure. After the recent California high-speed rail fiasco (which used federal funds), perhaps my critics will better understand my argument.
PS. Matt Yglesias has an excellent account of what went wrong, written from the perspective of a sensible progressive. I think the problems are even deeper, but his critique is quite well informed and full of good observations.
PPS. I reluctantly signed the carbon tax petition today. I say reluctantly, because I oppose the provision that would rebate the revenue to taxpayers. Instead, I’d prefer to use the funds to service our ballooning national debt, i.e. reduce the budget deficit.