A report from the Beijing Times claims that Chinese officials are interested in a cross-continental railway through the countries of China, Russia, Canada and the United States. Even if the technological challenges can be overcome, it is a safe assumption that the current political climate in the United States would shelve this plan before a single Yuan is budgeted for it. However, this is part of a larger trend of Chinese high-speed rail (HSR) exports that compete with European and Japanese corporations in emerging markets. For example, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to promote a HSR network that would connect every African capital for the sake of Pan-African development — an audacious plan but not unimaginable with the scale of infrastructure projects being built in Africa by Chinese engineers.
Meanwhile, California finally approved a line between Fresno and Bakersfield that should be completed in the 2020s. The completed network between San Francisco and Los Angeles will probably cost double or triple what the California High Speed Rail Authority predicted and face more delays in the later stages. That is assuming we even finish the project, as voters are now in a 52 percent majority against the HSR line, a reversal of the 52 percent majority that passed the proposition in 2008. At the current juncture, it would be better to revise the plan and to put it up to second vote rather than pushing ahead against popular opinion.
The defining problem with HSR is that its success can’t be measured before the first passenger boards the train and it’s difficult to predict its logistical importance in the coming decades. It’s understandable that the existence of highways and local airports lends little desire to expedite the construction of HSR across California — but if we plan to do something, we should at least show some degree of competency. The bureaucratic nightmare surrounding the process is only encouraging the narrative that government is inefficient and that HSR will not work in America.
If we want the project to be completed, we will need to take drastic steps to proceed forward. The lack of direction and clarity is irresponsible, regardless of the usual cacophony that accompanies any major public work. The administration must delineate the entire process or forfeit the entire project as a crippling failure. Since it is unlikely Gov. Jerry Brown will stop HSR partway, he needs to take initiative no matter how politically dangerous.
Unlike China, whose government can solve legal headaches by throwing stimulus money around and seizing property, we’re forced to navigate around homeowners, politicians, budgets and the eternal problem of earthquakes. Furthermore, there are a litany of other pressing matters such as education and healthcare which this money can be allotted to. As the projected costs inflate yearly, voters do not want to sacrifice funds for what appears to be a budget black hole.
Since we are not part of an authoritarian system that can force government objectives onto the populace, the solution can only be more democracy. Voters needs to have more faith in the government — but the government must have more faith in voters. Contrary to the opinion of cynics, voters are not too short-sighted to support long-term goals. If proponents can make an honest and compelling case for HSR, then the public will be willing to give HSR a second chance. After creating a concrete schedule with realistic costs, HSR should be put up to another vote by proposition. If they continue presenting a quixotic plan that is constantly set back by every obstacle, the project will be bled dry by public opinion before the first leg has finished construction.
It is only a matter of time before Democrats begin savaging the project, and once HSR loses its political allies, there is no chance for its survival. The reason private funds and federal funds are not materializing in the first place is because those behind the project are sabotaging their own prospects and creating worrying amounts of uncertainty. We are already so far behind schedule that it’s worth it to renegotiate the project from the start; this time with cues coming from the voting public and opening the possibility to foreign expertise on every step of planning and construction.
Once voters are compensated with a solid plan and transparency, they will return the favor by voting yes on a new proposition. If we choose to continue without any changes, it will be two decades before we realize whether or not we have made one the biggest mistakes in our state’s history. The legacy of HSR can either be more or less confidence in the government. Right now, I am not so confident.