We were having dinner with close friends the other night. They are an extremely successful couple, now retired, and have seen more of the world than any other person I know. They like us, have jumped on and off trains, and boats, and trains all around this world (though they have gone a lot further and to places my wife says, “in your dreams.” The surprising thing was that we all came to the conclusion that Governor Brown’s high speed train is not just a joke but insanity.
“Put the money into the regional transits, like BART,” he said. “Put it where it would make the most sense. The freeways are becoming a joke around here – make these trains work, not make it easier for folks in LA to escape.” There’s some truth to that I think.
The infrastructure of the Bay Areas rapid transit is now more than forty year old. New rail cars are being added; it will finally reach San Jose in a few years; and may extend into the eastern outlying suburbs during my lifetime. But put fifteen or twenty billion into it and real money will grow from these roots extending out into the hinterlands—just like it did forty years ago.
High-speed rail is cool. I took it from London to Milan last year. It’s a wonder. And it’s also a wonder how those European economies paid for it. Probably sold the same bonds to the Chinese the Californians are getting ready to sell. It isn’t a question of spending billions of dollars, California will do that anyway; it’s where it’s spent.
People will live where they want, and it is usually driven by costs and value and fear and traditions. They may want to live in their old neighborhood but work forty miles away; all the urban planning and silly state laws won’t change that. The basic twenty-first urban planning is done in most American cities; we are now into the fifth and six rings of outward development surrounding cities. Serving and interconnecting these rings with each other and to the old urban core are what needs to be done. Not build tracks in the middle of nowhere hoping that money will be found to connect them eventually to where the people really are. Governor Brown can create one of his fantasies and in the end it will all turn out just right. Maybe we can use it to bring water from Canada—not that’s an idea.