Politico's Heroic Profile of Jerry Brown's High-Speed Rail Dream

The latest edition of Politico Magazine features a profile of California Gov. Jerry Brown and his ambition--now more than three decades old--to bring high-speed rail to the state. The happy coincidence of Barack Obama's enormously wasteful and ineffective stimulus allowed Brown's dream, inspired by a trip to Japan, to take root. David Dayen's article casts Brown's mission in almost heroic style, a brave battle waged against great odds.

What Dayen's article never quite explores, however, is whether California actually needs high-speed rail of any kind--whether Brown's bullet train model, or Elon Musk's new "hyper loop" idea. The problem that high-speed rail is intended to solve--namely, traffic congestion--would barely be dented by high-speed rail. Congestion is not as much of a problem in long-distance driving as it is in the commutes within urban and peri-urban areas.

High-speed rail is also intended to reduce California's use of fossil fuels, but as Dayen does note, environmental groups have concluded that the money spent on high-speed rail would be more effective if spent elsewhere, such as replacing gas-powered cars with electric vehicles in municipal fleets. (In fact, fossil fuel development is likely the best answer to California's enormous debt problems, but that is a debate Brown is not willing to tolerate.)

At present, it is impossible to take a low-speed train from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The heavily-subsidized and underutilized Amtrak stops in San Jose. Dayen accepts Brown's premise that a high-speed train that takes 2.5 hours to travel from one city to the other--as opposed to one hour by air and six by car--"would eliminate millions of car trips and plane flights." Even liberal Californians are tired of such exaggerated boosterism.


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