Monday, October 31, 2011

Thoughts from High Speed Rail discussion at Fresno State

Edit: Apparently, the $100bn claims may have been based on some logic indeed, according to tomorrows newspapers. I will leave this post as-is, and turn on the oven to warm up the crow. For that specific section anyway. There are many other claims that still need be addressed.

A few days ago I posted my full set of notes from a high Speed Rail (HSR) discussion held at Fresno State. I did drop in a couple of comments, but I tried to stick to mostly straight notes.

Here are my thoughts on the speakers, the points they made, and other points about the discussion.

I will begin by talking about the "pro-HSR side". One of the questions raised during the forum brought out the point that the people speaking in support of HSR tended to base their speeches on general statements, while the anti-HSR speakers had more numbers. This is correct. The pro-HSR people talked a lot about all the wonderful things that HSR will bring to California and the central valley, but didn't really quote numbers, and when they did, they were general, such as "thousands".

But that approach may not have been the best one. You see, the audience was made up generally of two groups:

1) Fresno State students taking a class in HSR, and thus, generally well informed about the project
2) People concerned about the project who are either directly impacted by it (property owners on HSR route) or people who have read many negatives about the project and feel strongly against it.

That is, very few people at this meeting were there to learn about HSR. Most already had formed an opinion. The general public has no interest in attending a forum about HSR, either because they don't care, or because they simply know nothing about it.

So someone speaking for HSR should have targeted their discussion to debunk some misinformation and such, instead of using the "intro to HSR speech" that many had already heard. The "intro" speech is best saved for an environment where the general public at large is found, and not a highly specific subset that is attending purely to discuss HSR.

That being said, the anti-HSR people did use many numbers....but they didn't back them up. And the pro-HSR people did not try and debunk them.

For example, David Valadao quoted a whole series of numbers on the potential cost of the project, but kept focusing on his estimate of $100bn. There was nothing to back this up, but he said it with certainty, and people believe it.

It would be interesting to see the reaction of a speaker try and claim that project will cost $15bn. The number is just as made up, of course, but would take the same amount of time to "calculate".

Another set of numbers the anti-HSR people brought out was how many jobs will be destroyed. That's right, jobs destroyed.

One number repeated was that 6,000-15,000 jobs would be displaced in Fresno alone, and the speakers argued that these jobs would NEVER return.

Once again, nothing was there to back it up, but while the HSR people claimed that "thousands" of jobs would be created, the anti-HSR people seemed to have a more solid number, because they made something up and agreed to stick to it.

Yet another scary anti-HSR number thrown around was the idea that each CSU student would have to "pay" $2,000 a year to account for HSR expenses. That number was repeated twice, and targeted at the students, but it's rubbish.

It would be like the pro-HSR people claiming that $42 billion is just over a dollar a taxpayer, per year....spread over a bunch of years. You can take a cost and divide it up in anyway that looks good or bad.

37,000,000 Californians
= $1,135 per taxpayer
Over the 100 year lifespan of project
= $1.13

That's super affordable!

Also, as I mentioned, there were some false comments made by the anti-HSR people, and the pro-HSR people didn't bother to correct them. Indeed, the only time a correction was made was when the moderator or a member of the public directly attacked a point made by a speaker.

That's poor form. If one is speaking for a subject, one should be knowledgeable enough to know what myths will be brought up, and be able to correct those myths with the appropriate facts.

Here are a few myths/lies that were brought up and what should have been said.

Claim, then response.

-Project will cost $100bn
--Business plan comes out tomorrow and will show real cost. Should be nowhere near $100bn

-6,500-15,000 jobs will be lost in Fresno alone, people will move to Florida
--BS, businesses will relocate but not move. People dont just leave to Florida, they have family, professional, social ties to valley

-We're already paying interest on the HSR bonds
--I don't believe the bonds have even been released yet

-HSR went from $32bn to $42bn
--False, the price never changed, just the accounting method, from year of expenditure to year of opening

-HSR isnt using transportation corridors
--False, BNSF is a transportation corridor, and any veering from that has been by express request by representatives

-Driving will always be cheaper.
--It depends. 2020 is almost a decade away. How much did gas cost a decade ago? Say prices double again, and gas goes for $7 a gallon. Google shows the distance from Fresno to Disney as 250 miles. Say a car gets 27mpg (a 2016 model). That's $65 in gas each way. Now add wear-and-tear and such, and you're looking at $80...each way. For a family of five, yes driving may be cheaper. May. HSR MAY offer family packs. Disney charges something like $20 for parking. You're adding a premium of 3 hours of time, each way.

-College students can't afford it.
--Since it'll be indisputably cheaper than driving for an individual, college students will save money.

-Commuters cannot afford $2,000 a month in HSR costs. The home ownership savings from living in Fresno and working in the bay area should easilly cover that.

Those are just some examples of how one of the pro-HSR speakers could have challeneged the claims made by David Valadao. They didnt.

One thing I was especially interested in seeing is how Elizabeth Alexis would present herself. Online, and even in the beginning of her speech, she stated she supports HSR but is simply against the way the agency has behaved itself.

Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that this was not true, she was just using standard anti-HSR talking points that had very little to do with the agency. For example, her claim that each CSU student would have to pay $2,000 a year to support HSR, was both ridiculous and also completely unrelated to the agency. What HSR costs is what HSR costs. The agency isnt in charge of the price of concrete or steel.

Likewise, she tried using other fear tactics against the audience, such as claiming that the central valley was a guinea pig, and that jobs would be destroyed during construction, and after as people left the area. Again, this has nothing to do with how the agency conducts itself, it's just fear. Her claim that the CV would have to deal with pollution because it was chosen first for construction was quickly rebuffed by the moderator who asked if pollution wouldn't be an issue if the CV saw construction last.

While she did make points about the agency and some of the problems it has, she certainly wasn't shy about bashing the project as a whole, and for someone who claims that she supports the project, that's a problem. It's either one or the other, you can't come in and do them both.

Likewise, Valadao spoke against the project as if he was concerned about this specific infrastructure spending, but during the Q&A, he made it clear he was all about the tea-party line which believes that all government spending was bad.

I'm sure if you addressed every single concern, he'd still come back and say "let the private sector build it".

Basically, what I'm saying is that critics aren't a bad thing because many times they bring up points that have been overlooked by group-think. But if you're a critic, and you say you're only against a certain part of the project (ie, routing) but then rant about everything under the sun because you're REALLY against something else (ie, government investment), then that's a problem.

Why not some honesty?

On a final note, the public questions veered off into crazy-land more often than not. I couldn't stop thinking about an episode of Parks and Recreation in which the public forum was 100% crazy people saying crazy things. It rang quite true.

Makes me sympathize with any government organization that wants to cut down on public meetings. That is, a bureaucrat can only take so many crazy rants before checking out.

If only there was some way of screening questions beforehand.

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