I had hoped we'd dealt with this when it popped up at Daily Kos yesterday - the commenters there gave it a thorough smackdown - but unfortunately it's appeared across the blogosphere today, helped by the credulous and fundamentally uninformed Kevin Drum (I still don't understand why Mother Jones would hire a moderate to blog for them) who reproduced "it" on his site today.
"It" is an email being peddled by the daughter of James Mills offering criticism of Prop 1A. Mills is another one of these "rail supporters" who are offering truthiness and outright lies to try and convince people Prop 1A is a bad idea. To the uninformed masses - which unfortunately include some bloggers - anyone who claims to have rail credentials apparently is given the benefit of the doubt when we who actually understand rail policy know that James Mills, Richard Tolmach, Wendell Cox, and Joseph Vranich are fundamentally anti-rail.
Mills and Tolmach co-authored an HSR denier op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month. I gave it the usual thorough deconstruction here on the blog when it appeared, although I focused my fire on Tolmach, since I'd never heard of James Mills. Now Mills' daughter is circulating Mills' own arguments to the bloggers, and some of the more gullible bloggers, like Kevin Drum, have taken the bait. As a result Ezra Klein and now Atrios are discussing its contents.
So, time to try and kill the Zombie Lies.
The email starts like this:
I am passing on an analysis of California's Prop 1A ballot initiative from one of the leading experts and advocates of mass transit in the state of California, James Mills.
Mills' daughter writes:
I'd like to suggest you vote "No" on Proposition 1A, the "Safe Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act," on the basis of the following insider, expert information: my dad says it's a bad idea.
My father, James Mills, spent his entire career in the California state legislature (1961-1983) working to promote public transportation in the state. He was President pro Tem of the Senate for a decade. He was chairman of the Amtrak board under president Carter. Since retiring he has worked as a consultant on transit issues, and in the 1990's he served on the High Speed Rail Commission for the State of California . My dad is hard-core in favor of rail. If he says a proposal to fund a rail project is no good, then that proposal has to be a real turkey.
Notice the sleight of hand here. James Mills is not a well-known figure even in California political circles. His specific policy positions are completely unknown. But just like the notoriously anti-transit Wendell Cox, and the equally anti-rail Joseph Vranich, Mills trades on a 30-year old association with Amtrak to try and gain credibility when he passes on flawed HSR denials. The last sentence is designed to solidify the assumed expertise of Mills, but to me it just sets off alarm bells.
Which are justified when we read the specific objections:
1. Prop 1A raises about ten billion dollars in a bond issue. This is a down-payment on a project which was estimated in 2006 to cost 45 billion dollars but will probably cost more if it is ever built. Remaining funding will be sought from the federal government (10-15 billion) and private investors (15-20 billion).
Notice that, as always, no specific reason is given as to "probably cost more". It is blind speculation. No specific figure of cost overruns is given either. Lacking those details or underlying explanations this claim lacks credibility. Rail projects around the country, including LA's Metro Gold Line extension, have been delivered on time and on budget in recent years.
Further, and this is ironic, that $45 billion is the figure for the ENTIRE system - which in point #5 Mills claims is unplanned.
2. The federal government has never invested any amount even close to $10 billlion in a transit project.
The federal government had never spent $700 billion on a bank bailout either. Before 1971 they'd never operated passenger trains. Before 1956 they'd never spent hundreds of billions on freeways. Shall we go on?
But we have better evidence. John Kerry and Johnny Isakson are working on a bill to provide about $10 billion for HSR projects around the nation. Both Barack Obama and Joe Biden are strong supporters of HSR and want to fund it.
3. If private investment were found, the bill says that investors would make money NOT from a the profit of the transit system, but from a percentage of ticket sales. In other words, the profit of investors is guaranteed, regardless of the operating costs of the system. The Legislative Analyst estimates that the OPERATING AND MAINTENANCE COSTS of the system will be one billion per year -- the State of California will cover any deficit not covered by ticket sales. It is rare for a public transit system to run in the black: normally, not all costs of the system will be covered from the fare box.
This is a bit misleading. As I understand it from what Rod Diridon explained today, those same investors also have to satisfy their own bond to the state/CHSRA and a "franchise fee" to the same. That's quite a bit different than saying "their profit is guaranteed" - a misleading statement designed to imply that California is going to be left holding the bag while private investors light cigars with our money.
This claim also misleads Californians on the Legislative Analyst's estimate - she has said the $1 billion figure is a worst-case scenario.
And of course, it is not rare for high speed rail systems to run in the black. In fact, they ALL run in the black. Every last one. In France the TGVs are so profitable they subsidize other slower rail services. SNCF had so much money they actually gave some to the French treasury earlier this year.
4. Premises on projected ridership are false. The only high-speed rail system in the US is Amtrak's "Acela" service between NY-Washington and NY-Boston. This system is well established and serves large population centers with excellent public transportation tie-ins to feed it such as subways, and they carry 3 million riders a year. The French have the best high-speed rail system in the world, and their busiest line is Paris to Lyon, again large cities with major subway systems, and it carries perhaps 15 million riders a year. In contrast, proponents of Prop 1A rely on a projection of 100 million riders per year between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a figure provided by a paid consultant that happened to be Lehman Brothers. This projection of patronage is a fantasy.
This paragraph is full of outright lies. Yes, lies.
First, Acela is not true HSR and is much slower than our system will be. Anyone trying to compare the Acela to CA HSR either does not understand Acela or is deliberately misleading readers. It does not speak very well of James Mills' vaunted "rail knowledge."
Second, these arguments about ridership come directly from the oil company funded Reason Foundation. It is a libertarian lies being passed off as fact. Those ridership claims - specifically about Paris-Lyon - are complete nonsense. We thoroughly debunked the "not enough riders" claim last month. The key portion of our mythbusting:
Cox-Vranich's [the Reason Foundation study] ridership figures are wildly inaccurate. Using C-V's preferred measure, JR Central reported 2007 ridership of 80 million passenger km per Shinkansen route km (44.5 billion passenger km / 552 km route). In the "high" scenario, CA HSRA is forecasting roughly 27 million passenger km per HSR route km (30 billion passenger km / 1,120 km route). So C-V's claim that CA HSRA is using numbers higher than those achieved on any other system in the world is absurdly false - in fact, CA HSRA's numbers are only 1/3rd of what has been previously achieved.
JR Central's Shinkansen is the densest ridership in the world. A more informative comparison would be the TGV or the new Taiwan HSR (THSR). We don't have passenger-km ridership for those lines, but we can compute passengers per route-km. The TGV Paris Southeast (PSE) line gets 45k passengers per route-km (20 million pax / 448 route-km) while the THSR gets 101k passengers per route-km (34 million pax / 335 route-km). CA HSR is forecasting a high of 80k passengers per route-km in 2030, or around 56k passengers per route-km at today's populations. This is slightly above TGV PSE but well below THSR. It does not seem unreasonable since the LA Metro Area is larger than Paris Metro Area or the Taipei Metro Area. And more importantly, the SF Bay Area is twice as large as the Kaoshiung Metro Area and four times as large as the Lyon Metro Area.
On to the fifth and final lie, which is the most ridiculous of them all:
5. Promises of future extension to Sacramento, Orange County and San Diego are empty in that no concrete plan of any kind is offered other than the unrealistic plan for a Los Angeles-San Francisco line.
Mills is just showing off his ignorance here. Prop 1A would fund a line from SF to Anaheim - which, last time I checked, was still in Orange County. SD and Sacramento plans are in existence in full detail and can be found at the California High Speed Rail Authority website.
It's worth closing by reminding people of the big picture here. High speed rail will create badly needed green jobs and economic stimulus while providing Californians with sustainable transportation that reduces dependence on oil and cuts carbon emissions. It is supported by virtually the entire California progressive community.
It is being opposed by the Howard Jarvis Association and the Reason Foundation. The former are the keepers of the right-wing flame here in California. The latter are a group of rabid anti-government nuts who are funded by oil companies and other leading right-wing foundations. They have been using an ignorant and pliant media to push out their "omg boondoggle not enough riders" nonsense over the last six weeks or so.
It would be a shame for folks in the blogosphere - folks who usually know better - than to repeat the high speed rail version of the "Obama is a Muslim" email.