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By Paul Bendix

California High-Speed Rail: What It Says About Us

Uploaded: Dec 25, 2013

It says a lot about us and our general belief in the future.

Our state's infrastructure is largely mid-20th century. In the postwar decades, Californians voted to build the world's biggest highway system. They authorized bonds for an epic statewide water project. In the same breath, voters dramatically expanded the state's universities.

Every one of these projects was hugely successful...and fundamentally flawed.

California's highway czars poured billions into a one-mode transportation system that proved unscalable – no match for zooming populations and land costs. Similarly, today the State Water Project, despite a 444-mile canal and 19 dams, is no match for climate change, population growth and agribusiness. Once the envy of the world, California's public universities are withering.

So what's so different about today's grand project, high-speed rail? Fundamentally, our attitudes.

For a moment, instead of looking at the project, consider how it is debated. When was the last time you saw the issue discussed in terms of California's population growth, demographic trends and future competitiveness? Can you even roughly describe the state's needs five years from now? 10? 20?

Let's assume you oppose the high-speed rail project. Fine. What's your alternative? Do you have a solid plan...timely and achievable...for addressing our mushrooming transportation needs? How does your plan tackle energy and environmental issues over the next two decades? How will California look to global business, say, 15 years?

In the 1950s and 60s, the collective sacrifices of the war years were still fresh – and it was easier to think of "our future." Today, considering California's future seems to inspire more doubt than excitement. And, yes, our institutions are broken. (See Francis Fukuyama's recent article.)

It took decades of PR, lies and distortions to build today's BART system. Bill Stokes, the PT Barnum of urban mass transit, wandered the region giving 300 speeches. Stokes promised the public anything. No wonder BART went bankrupt halfway through construction (saved by a Sacramento bailout). The finished system had no sidings for broken trains, and computer problems regularly shut it down. BART riders like me wondered what we had bought.

That's all forgotten now. Bill Stokes, once run out of the Bay Area on a third rail, is now remembered as a hero. But then BART got built. High-speed rail may not.