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About this blog: A 32-year resident of Menlo Park, I regularly make my way around downtown in a wheelchair. This gives me an unusual perspective on a town in which I have spent almost half of my life. I was educated at UC Berkeley, and permanentl...  (More)

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California High-Speed Rail...a Bit More

Uploaded: Jan 9, 2014
Thanks to everyone who weighed in on the topic of high-speed rail in California...a blog that was also a comment on California past and present.

Why is it that half a century ago state taxpayers voted to shell out massive amounts of money on infrastructure projects? It is an intriguing question. No one seemed to comment on this.

Historically, does part of the answer have to do with a more equitable tax structure? In 1959, for example, an income of $100,000 placed you in the 90% tax bracket. Presumably this meant less strain on the middle class. But that's only my guess.

Again the question: around 1960, why did such big public expenditures garner so much popular support?

Responding to a few specific comments – all of them interesting....

We're falling behind in public investment in general, including education and infrastructure. I hate to pit one against the other. We need both.

What is the business case for high-speed rail in California? Again, I welcome ideas here.

Personally, I recall the origins of Crossrail, now Europe's biggest infrastructure project. This system will bring heavy trains east-west under London. To fund it, the UK's major financial sector corporations agreed to a special tax. Barclays, Goldman Sachs, Lloyds, Citibank, etc. voluntarily paid billions of pounds to better connect the City of London with other financial centers.

Buying into Crossrail has nothing to do with population density, by the way. It has to do with getting financial service executives where they want to go.

In general, transportation projects respond to market and environmental need, right? The 150 mile-per-hour Stockholm-Göteborg-Malmö rail line serves a nation larger than California – while Sweden's population slightly exceeds the greater Bay Area's. Why do the Swedes plan to speed the line. Ask them.

As for BART, whatever its imperfections, almost half a million people a day now ride it.

Level boarding for Caltrain is a great idea. It's part of Caltrain's Modernization Project -- and suggestions for speeding the plan and solidifying its funding are most welcome.

Comments

Posted by Bert, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks,
on Jan 12, 2014 at 9:40 pm

What is the business case for high-speed rail in California? There is none now, there never was. The promises in the ballot initiative in 2008, the rules CA HSR is supposed to live by, promised a train that would eventually make a profit. Rather, it quickly turned into a giant money pit, and unless it's stopped, it will turn into a giant money crater.


Posted by Louise68, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Jan 14, 2014 at 12:34 am

Paul -- About big infrastructure projects:
You yourself admitted that the only reason those bankers ever parted with any of their ill-gotten gains was to benefit other members of the 1%. Not us ordinary people. That is wrong.

Fifty years ago, people were willing to spend their hard-earned tax dollars on big infrastructure projects because those projects would benefit them, not just the 1%. But the California High Speed Rail project will benefit only the 1%. And we ordinary people are being asked to spend even more of our hard-earned tax dollars on that boondoggle that -- even now -- has been declared to be in violation of the very law we passed back in 2008.

We do not need HSR in California as much as we need to hire back all the police officers, firefighters, and schoolteachers who have been laid off because there was not enough state money to keep them on the public payrolls. (No, those people do not draw State of California paychecks, but the money that the cities and counties use to pay those valuable public servants comes directly from the State of California.)

I want my tax dollars to go toward hiring back those police officers, firefighters, and schoolteachers who were laid off because there was not enough money to keep them employed. I also want my hard-earned tax dollars to go toward repairing our aging infrastructure -- roads; water, sewer and gas lines; and bridges. Building a high-speed rail system is not even on my personal list of important projects that public monies should be spent on.

About level boarding for CalTrain:
It is a great idea, but all stations will have to be redone, in order to install the ramps that will be necessary in order for everyone to be able to access the lower floor of the tri-level Bombardier-built cars that CalTrain now uses. And CalTrain's gallery cars will have to go -- their floors are simply too high. Any ramp up to a level-boarding platform that would allow easy access into a gallery car would have to be too long to allow entry to all 5 cars. Question: Does anyone know if the lower levels of both the California cars and Amtrak Superliners are the exact same height as those in CalTrain and ACE's tri-level cars? This is very important for the many people who board at San Jose.

How to get public support for this? Money. Lots of it. To pay for lots of really good publicity. And to pay for reconstructing all platforms at every single CalTrain station. And to pay for new cars to replace the present gallery cars. Yes, CalTrain *must* keep *all* its present stations in service indefinitely, and must *not* plan to delete service to *any* of them.

There will be plenty of money if CalTrain gets federal finds for capital improvements, which are exactly what rebuilding stations and buying new rolling stock are. PR is another matter. (I wonder if PR could be considered part of the station-remodeling projects?)

Comments, anyone?


Posted by Paul Bendix, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Jan 14, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Thanks Everyone. Comments are most interesting – please keep them rolling in.

Quite right. High-speed rail will not make a profit, and this should never have been promised. Passenger rail does not make a profit. Can anyone cite a passenger train system that is profitable? Railroads, like automotive roads, are infrastructure. No one demands profitability for 101 or 280, for example.

The London Crossrail project has plenty of support from the 1% – as well as about 80% of the rest of the populace who will also benefit. This is not a zero sum game.


Posted by peninsula resident, a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School,
on Jan 15, 2014 at 10:59 pm

> Why is it that half a century ago state
> taxpayers voted to shell out massive
> amounts of money on infrastructure
> projects? It is an intriguing question.
> No one seemed to comment on this.

It wasn't commented on because it wasn't brought up as a question in the previous blog post.

So I'll comment on it now:

1) America was one of the few remaining economic powers that wasn't bombed to smithereens in WWII; our industry was left intact and rapidly retooled from building war equipment. We had comparatively little competition, oil was pumped locally and was cheap, and our economy as a result was rapidly expanding and we had low unemployment.

2) Even THEN, even with all that relative wealth and economic growth, they had the good sense to focus on education, water, electricity and roads (both at the state and federal levels). While I appreciate the counterpoints to continued rapid expansion of roads, you'd be hard pressed to win an argument that HSR is more important than education, water (and sewage) and electrical infrastructure.

3) Respectfully, I think you do water, energy and education a disservice by trying to lump HSR into the same category as "infrastructure";

> In 1959, for example, an income of $100,000
> placed you in the 90% tax bracket. Presumably
> this meant less strain on the middle class. But
> that's only my guess.

Marginal tax rates bare little resemblance to effective tax rates. The effective tax rate for top earners in 1959-1960 paid much closer to 30-33%, little different than what we pay now when you factor in Obama's added taxes for ACA (with the ACA tax, the top effective rate is possibly a bit more than what was paid in 59-60).

> Again the question: around 1960, why did
> such big public expenditures garner so much
> popular support?

Answered (see above).

> We're falling behind in public investment in
> general, including education and infrastructure.
> I hate to pit one against the other. We need both.

Again, I don't agree with lumping HSR with other more urgent infrastructures such as energy, water and waste, as well as education. So I certainly didn't advocate pitting infrastructure vs education. However, those other issues are more important than HSR. Anyone would be hard pressed to argue otherwise.

> Crossrail, now Europe's biggest infrastructure project

1) Crossrail is, at best, a regional transportation project. It's about 75 MILES; that's it, running at under 100MPH. Apples and oranges when comparing it to HSR is suppose to deliver via Prop 1a. If you're going to use a regional transportation project as your example, then I counter that the Bay Area has indisputably shown that it has been spending money on regional transportation (I'm an advocate of improving regional transportation, by the way):

a) The SAS section of the bay bridge (which was a colossal waste of money and proves the state cannot be trusted to spend citizen money efficiently; we could have had a simple and effective skyway like the SM bridge at about one EIGHTH the cost, and had it at least 10-15 YEARS sooner).
b) bart extension to SFO;
c) bart extension to millbrae;
d) Caltrain modernization;
e) VTA;
(that's just off the top of my head)

2) Crossrail will be tunneling under London. One of the reasons London public transit works is because of the way it was built: underground. It integrates into the neighborhoods instead of partitioning them. HSR has no intention of doing that anywhere except SF and LA.


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