High Speed Rail, Slow Speed Plan
November 07, 2011, 01:55 PM
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High speed rail is considered to be a liberal or progressive cause in the U.S., but all those terms are increasingly outmoded. 

Consider California`s attempts to build a high-speed rail system. At present, there are attempts to build a Train to Nowhere from somewhere in the flat, rural Central Valley to somewhere else in the flat, rural Central Valley. But even that easy stage is running into entrenched opposition. From the LA Times:

Critics say such blunders are routine for the rail authority. Across the length of the Central Valley, the bullet train as drawn would destroy churches, schools, private homes, shelters for low-income people, animal processing plants, warehouses, banks, medical offices, auto parts stores, factories, farm fields, mobile home parks, apartment buildings and much else as it cuts through the richest agricultural belt in the nation and through some of the most depressed cities in California. 

Although the potential for such disruption was understood in general terms when the project began 15 years ago, the reality is only now beginning to sink in. 

The potential economic, cultural and political damage may be an omen. The Central Valley, where construction could start next year, is expected to be the politically easiest and lowest-cost segment of the system, designed to move millions of passengers between Southern California and the Bay Area. The project`s effects could be even greater in more populous places like Silicon Valley, Orange County, Burbank, San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles.


Okay, so they`ve been planning away for 15 years, and now the real fights begin.

California`s freeways were built during the heyday of majoritarianism in the middle of the 20th Century. The amount of high-handedness required to build the freeways seems staggering today. Let me give an example not from freeways, but from a business law class I took in 1979. Even by then, this seemed hilariously high-handed.

After WWII, the U.S. government started above-ground nuclear bomb testing in Nevada. One nuke shock wave knocked down a bunch of ranchers` barns and all the scared cattle ran away and most of them died before they could be rounded up. The ranchers tried to get compensated for their barns and cows, but the feds said they had taken every reasonable precaution; therefore, the ranchers shouldn`t get a dime. The ranchers sued on the grounds that nuclear bombs should fall under the doctrine of strict liability, just as owning lions and tigers do. If you own a tiger and it eats somebody, you are liable even if you took all the precautions a reasonable man would. The courts ruled for the government: the government`s nuclear bombs shouldn`t be treated as something inherently dangerous, in contrast to scary lions and tigers.

In contrast, compare that to the federal government`s plan to store nuclear waste under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The feds began studying Yucca Mountain in 1978, but then gave up in 2010, almost a third of a century later.

The 1960s can be characterized as the switch from majoritarianism to minoritarianism in America, when the moral high ground shifted from the majority to anybody who can successfully characterize themselves as a victimized minority. Not surprisingly, this gets in the way of progressive plans like High Speed Rail. 

Further, the power of Not in My Back Yard politics grows with the number of back yards. When the freeways were built, there was a lot more open land. In other words, the huge population growth in California makes for a more gridlocked society. This isn`t all that complicated, but the connection between immigration, population growth, and gridlock isn`t on the mental radar of even 5% of the punditocracy.