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Borrowing From Matt Yglesias, California's High-Speed Train To Nowhere May Be Positive

Paresh Dave |
December 1, 2010 | 2:55 a.m. PST

Executive Producer

Is it better to slowly build 10 great projects or to quickly build five good ones and five bad ones?
Is it better to slowly build 10 great projects or to quickly build five good ones and five bad ones?
Fresno Bee columnist Dan Walters joined this week the criticism of a federal mandate that California's first high-speed rail segment must connect two cities in the middle of the Central Valley.

Rather than first connecting two much more highly-populated coastal cities such as San Diego and Los Angeles, Walters found that the Obama administration pushed for a 54-mile segment between Madera and Corcoran because it could help "an embattled local congressman, Democrat Jim Costa, stave off a very stiff Republican challenge."

Walters went on to pan the plan as a "train to nowhere" since there's no guarantee that funding will come through to finish the high-speed rail network from San Diego to San Francisco. The derisive name has some merit, but the stigma attached to the monicker, thanks to the late Sen. Ted Stevens' "Bridge to Nowhere," may not be deserving.

Progessive blogger Matt Yglesias pointed out during a speech at USC on Wednesday that there are no bigger wastes than human time and human capital. People sitting around and not working doesn't help anyone. Yglesias suggests transit construction projects, even if they end up being boondoggles, make sense.

He said, essentially, wasted human resources is worse than wasted taxpayer money. The project may not be worth the cost, but it will offer at least value and the economy will benefit in the long run from people being put to work. The unemployment rates in the Central Valley spans from 11 percent to 16 percent.

Yglesias' remarks came in response to a question from an audience member about what will be the fate of Los Angeles' 30/10 initiative--a plan that would allow the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to complete a dozen transit projects in 10 years instead of 30 years with the help of a loan from the federal government. The loan would be guaranteed against sales tax revenues that will pour in until 2040 because of Measure R.

Though Yglesias praised Obama-backed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act programs for transit projects such as the TIGER grants, he said they weren't as effective as they could've been because they were designed to prevent boondoggles. Filling out detailed applications, coming up with good ideas, reviewing those proposals and selecting the best ones takes time, Yglesias argued. For thousands of potential workers sitting on their couches, it's wasted time during which they aren't getting any younger.

A program that makes better sense, according to Yglesias, is a large debt-free federal fund from which cities, counties and other agencies could draw from to pay for whatever projects they can come up with immediately.

Municipalities with smart leaders like Los Angeles would end up with terrific projects and others would end up throwing money down the train, Yglesias said. The great doesn't come without the bad, but there's a less significant amount of inaction.

For now, hopes of such a fund remain slim. A Republican-led House of Representatives would have to approve next year a transportation expenditures bill that allows for deficit spending, which is a tough sell for Metro to make to the conservative caucus.

Villaraigosa had considered getting Washington to bankroll a fast-tracking of transit projects before Measure R was even approved by two-thirds of L.A. County voters in 2008. Metro board member Richard Katz and Villaraigosa deputies Jay Carson and Jaime De La Vega first traveled to Washington in Dec. 2009 to sell the 30/10 plan to the likes of Federal Transit Adminstration chief Peter Rogoff, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, chairman of the House Transportation Committee Jim Oberstar and ranking member of the House Rules Committee David Dreier.

Villaraigosa has made a handful of trips to Washington this year to make his own pleas, hammering home three benefits of 30/10 over and over--job creation, leveraging federal dollars and the guaranteed payback from Measure R revenues.

De La Vega says the feedback has been "universally supportive." The team behind 30/10 is ironing the draft legislation for the loan and bond component of the plan. Sen. Barbara Boxer will likely carry the bill in the Senate. Who will introduce the bill in the House remains uncertain.

For its part, Metro spokeswoman Helen Gilstrap-Ortiz said in mid-November, "We're still assessing the situation and are hopeful that the 30/10 plan will continue, as it has in the past, to get bipartisan support."

Maybe borrowing from Yglesias' reasoning will help their cause.

Reach executive producer Paresh Dave here. Follow him on Twitter: @peard33.



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