Editorial: The LA Times Fails to Cover Major Court Victory for High-Speed Rail

An open letter to the LA Times, courtesy of Streetsblog

San Joaquin river viaduct, part of California's HSR construction. Photo: California HSR
San Joaquin river viaduct, part of California's HSR construction. Photo: California HSR

To the Los Angeles Times and Ralph Vartabedian, principal reporter on the high-speed rail beat:

We wanted to let you know that last week the Times missed a major story on the California High-Speed Rail project. The story was covered by the Associated Press and picked up by almost every major news outlet in the state, but somehow you, the newspaper that seems to have more stories about CAHSR than any other publication, missed this one.

Here’s the headline from the CBS affiliate in Sacramento: “Judge Tentatively Tosses Bond Arguments Against California High-Speed Rail.”

Last Thursday in Sacramento, a Superior Court again rejected high-speed rail opponents’ arguments that the state is improperly spending bond money approved by voters in 2008. If you somehow missed this, you might read the AP story at The San Jose Mercury News, ABC7, CBS2The Fresno Bee, Sonoma’s The Press Democrat, or even The Miami Herald. The judge could still reverse this decision, but that seems unlikely, since it’s the second time the court has rejected arguments by project opponents that the state is improperly spending voter-approved bond money.

This is a big deal. It’s the last gasp of a suit that could have stopped the project cold.

If you read the CBS story, it quotes Stuart Flashman, an attorney for the anti-HSR plaintiffs, about the decision. You should remember him. The LA Times published his op-ed, “How to Make High-Speed Rail Work in California” back in 2013, without ever mentioning that he is a lawyer suing to stop the project and that the alignment changes he suggested would have made the project illegal, in addition to avoiding the properties of his clients.

To give credit where credit is due, the Times did run a separate legal story from the Associated Press on a relatively minor court settlement with the city of Shafter. And thank you for continuing to cover project outreach meetings and the usual verbal tomato-throwing that occurs with almost any large transportation, sewer, or water project. But would it hurt to occasionally do fact-checking when quoting ill-informed project opponents? “None of this is going to come to fruition” except maybe the 100+mile part that’s already funded and well under construction, no?

We know. We’ve called you out about this before. You’re just “critical” of transportation projects (as long as they’re rail projects).

And, to be fair, when this case was first ruled in the project’s favor, you did write about it. Maybe you figured writing about a major ruling that’s positive for the project once in two years is enough.

But this is hardly the first time a major event, poll, study, etc. on HSR just slipped by you–funny it’s always the pro-HSR information that gets omitted.

Like that time you did a long feature about the engineering challenges of running high-speed rail in earthquake country, but failed to address the 9.0-9.1 Japanese Tōhoku earthquake of 2011. Twenty-seven bullet trains (and many conventional trains) were running through the area of highest destruction when the quake struck, but they slowed down and stopped, without seriously harming any of the passengers. As it turned out, a bullet train was one of the safest places to be during an earthquake that killed nearly 20,000 people, destroyed over 129,000 buildings, and set off the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

A bullet train traveling through Japan, one of the most earthquake-prone nations in the world, without incident... a fact omitted by the LA Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A bullet train traveling through Japan, one of the most earthquake-prone nations in the world, without incident… a fact omitted by the LA Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Clearly, you just forgot about that massive earthquake or don’t know the Japanese have bullet trains. But, again, you somehow managed to miss a huge story about HSR.

Either way, we have no doubt if last week’s ruling is reversed, so it hurts or stops the high-speed rail project, you’ll be on that story like Judith Miller on WMDs.

For the record, here at Streetsblog we are also biased. We’re biased in favor of projects that enhance sustainable transportation options, reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions, reduce reliance on petroleum, and promote safe and walkable and bikeable cities and towns. High-speed rail has a strong record of doing the things we advocate for; it brings economic vitality to city centers. So, yes, we’re biased in its favor.

But wouldn’t it be strange if year after year, despite our conspicuous bias, we pretended otherwise?

UPDATE 11/1: One full day after this story, and a week after the judgement announcement, the L.A. Times did publish a story. You can read it here.

  • Don Kress

    Ok, where do you get the $200 fare, Prices range from $100 to $300 for just the airfare. I think you have forgotten about the cost to get to and from the airport and parking. As I said before, people are always trying to get their two cents in but have no idea what they are talking about.

  • Where’d you come up with that silly notion? It’s not dead, 120 miles are under construction in the Central Valley right now.

  • So for about same price as an airline ticket, the transit, taxis, etc. getting to and from the airport, why would I choose the inconvenience of flying?

    And there’s travel time and waiting between all those connections. For me, HSR will make it faster and easier to get to SFO and SJC.

    You’ve only focussed on one possible trip, there are no flights from Madera to San Francisco. Fresno won’t just be more expensive, it has a limited number of flights.

  • Opposition to HSR often just comes down to selfishness. And extremely short-sighted at that.

    Highways don’t do much for those without cars or can’t drive. And even if you do make the blind and disabled drive, you can’t get around that easily if everyone is stuck in gridlocked traffic.

    HSR will serve some of the most traffic congested parts of the US. Why do you want to make it worse?

  • Canals are still used to carry cargo and passengers by boat. The most famous is probably the – still operational, expanding even – Panama Canal.

    The internal combustion engine seems on it’s way out, like they replaced a lot of steam engines.

  • Ben Phelps

    untrue. High Speed rail is great and we can absolutely afford it.

  • Ben Phelps

    This is flawed and irrational. Steamboats are obsolete, but “boats” aren’t. Horse-driven buggies are obsolete, but horseless-buggies aren’t. Canals aren’t obsolete, they’re used by those boats all the time. Well designed trains are well used and crowded all over the world (also in the U.S. Also in California!). You seem unable to process this.

  • Ben Phelps

    well that’s why there’s like 12 other stops. But opponents complain about that too.

  • LazyReader

    America has the most efficient railroad in the world. Because it’s almost entirely privately owned and moves freight. It’s better for three reasons. 46 percent of EU-27 freight goes by highway while only 10 percent goes
    by rail, while in the U.S. 43 percent goes by rail and only 30 percent
    by road. Thus, we’re using our rail system far more effectively than
    Europe. This is not just from an energy view but also from a
    consumer-cost view, as rails cost less than trucks for freight but more
    than cars for passengers.
    One: From an environmental viewpoint, it makes more sense to use railroads for freight than for passengers. A 50-ton freight car can hold 100 tons of freight, so the energy cost of moving the dead weight is low. But a 50-ton passenger car normally holds less than 10 tons of passengers, so the energy cost of moving all the dead weight is high.

    Two: American freight railroads require almost no subsidies, while local American roads and streets are partly subsidized but state and interstate highways are nearly all paid for with user fees. In contrast, urban and intercity passenger trains in both the United States and most of Europe require subsidies to cover half or more of their costs. Private or user-fee-funded transportation imposes a discipline that prevents costs from getting too high.

    Three: mobility. The average American travels twice as many miles/kilometers per year as the average European. Per capita shipments of freight in the U.S. are also nearly twice those of Europe. Europe’s high taxes on fuel and vehicles depress total travel while its subsidies to rail don’t come close to making up the difference.

    The value of Europe’s rail transit systems are exaggerated. Despite spending more in subsidies and higher fare recovery, modal split of land transportation data shows the real results. 85% of all miles accumulated in the US is done by automobile. Those green Europeans, roughly 80%..so for several times the investment and subsidies they got a smidgen more people onto trains.

  • LazyReader

    Why not be totally fossil fuel free. Here’s a few things you will have to give up to meet that goal:

    1. Food – no more fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. Expect crop losses of 40-80%.

    2. Plastics – gone, cant manufacture complex carbon chains (i.e.
    polymers) without simple carbon chain molecules to start with (Ethane,
    hexane, etc) and no carbon fiber……(sorry Europe, I know you love your
    fancy tennis racquets and BMW’s, I love this one cause BMW has a carbon
    fiber plant in washington state…to make the carbon fiber for their i3
    and i8 electric cars, cause electric power is cheaper in Washington than
    it is in Germany.

    3. Manufacturing – like above, jobs go where energy is cheap.

    4. Modern Medicine. About 85% of pharmaceuticals and drugs use Benzene as a pre-cursor.

    5. Lubricants – both machine and “personal”, hope you like it raw.
    Without lubricants you have no moving machines, no trains, cars,
    engines, no hydraulics and some very sore butt holes. Only
    substitute…..animal grease.

    6. Steel and all other metal alloys. They require petroleum or coke

    7. Synthetic materials, nylon, spandex, polyester and rubber. No more
    LuLu Lemons or running shoes for you and no more bike tires, we all know
    how Europeans love to bike. No more synthetic fabrics to keep you warm
    during those below zero European winters unless you’re willing to ignore
    PETA and start skinning furry animals again for warmth.

    8. About 20% of all construction materials contain or use petroleum
    products. Without glue, sealants, epoxies, binders, coatings there goes
    your house. And no fuel means no oxy-fuel welding or construction
    equipment, and no steel means you really cant build anything past a few
    stories and expect it to hold up. No bricks since bricks have to be fired and stone has to be quarried and transported.

    9. Flying. Yeah, let’s go back to wooden sailing ships that took weeks to cross oceans.

    10: Refrigerants. Yeah, hydrocarbons being used to keep food with short shelf life fresh

    11: Shipping: Diesel powered marine vessels big no no. (Which would be
    devastating to their economies since Nordic countries heavily depend on
    shipping)

    12: You can also stop promoting your city as a tourist destination. Think of all the fuel saved by people not going there.

  • Ben Phelps

    You seem to really hate the idea of giving people options. Again, rail is popular in the U.S. (and California!) where the service is good. Is that bad?

  • LazyReader

    Why stop at rail, why not subsidize jet packs or helicopters

  • Ben Phelps

    because rail is the most efficient way to move people per mile, more bang for your buck.

  • senorroboto

    Except the rest of the paragraph seems to just complain about lack of any coverage, nice attempt at retrofitting your argument though. Plus you’re conflating a transit advocacy blog with a “neutral” major newspaper of record… get a life dude.

  • LazyReader

    No it doesn’t. Pollution from automobiles has declined considerably. Density is simply that environmental term for unaffordable. Compared with the safety and security and Comfort of riding a car, Crime, sexual harassment, graffiti, unpleasant odors, poor hygiene, invasions of privacy and depraved acts. Rail infrastructure has a life expectancy of about 30 years, once it hits that age, you either have to replace it or painstakingly refurbish it of which most transit agencies have done neither as the dilapidated stock in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and San Francisco have demonstrated. New York’s subway system went through such a crisis in the 1980s, but it fixed the problems by spending billions of dollars and going heavily into debt. Now, roughly 30 years later, the debt remains, and the delays and breakdowns have returned. By the end of 2016, the MTA was saddled with $37 billion in long-term debt and double that in total liabilities, leaving it in a poor position to fix the problems. Rather than reduce this, New York spent 10 Billion building the East Side Access Line, 4.5 Billion on the first miles of the 2nd Ave Subway and 2.5 billion extending the 7 Subway just one mile. Now the Governor is pandering hat in hand for federal funds to fix the Hudson tunnels…..Contrary to what people might think, one of the main causes of the maintenance crises is not a shortage of funds, but too much money spent in the wrong places. Since transit systems rely on tax dollars for most of their funds, politicians have a major say in how to spend that money. Such politicians tend to favor “ribbons over brooms”—that is they prefer glitzy projects to critical maintenance. Bus unions in cities are highlighting and fighting oppression based on socioeconomic status as reflected in our city’s grossly inadequate public transportation system; The NAACP sued Los Angeles for massive cuts to bus services in black neighborhoods namely due to money was diverted to pay for the Metro light rail. Cuts to bus service disproportionately effect low-income residents and communities of color. The failure in logic here is that these small and moderate size cities are pushing for transportation infrastructure on par with their big city cousins out of nostalgia for the rail. They don’t HAVE THE POPULATION and thus the tax base or revenue to afford billion dollar projects and the projects have reputations for embarrassingly going over projected budgets. NO CITY With less than a million people needs rail transit anymore. Rail transit was never a equalizer. At it’s peak only middle class people could afford streetcar usage daily, working class people had to walk. When Ford introduced the Model T for 500 dollars working class people could suddenly afford to go anywhere. Automobile ownership went from less than 5% by 1910 to 50% by 1926. Station to station collectivist technology is no match for something that offers door to door service.

  • crazyvag

    There.. it comes out. Your statement that you don’t care about climate change says it all. You’re simply the type of person that might have had a shitty life, or hates kids, and didn’t get a good education.
    All this ends up with you not caring about world, environment or making life better for future generations. You get extremely angry when money is spent on anything that doesn’t directly benefit you, but because your lack understanding, the best arguments you make are comparing things to horseback riding.

    In the meantime, the rest of the world that doesn’t live in a coal bubble that you seem to be in, we’re making a cleaner better future for everyone.

  • Ben Phelps

    I don’t read past the the “read more” tab.

    You seem like the kind of guy that could really benefit from better access to public space. Imagine, being able to walk out from your mom’s basement, into a vibrant public square, where you can have a nice cup of coffee, people watch, mingle with people from various walks of life. It’s good for your mental health!

    But you’re right, nobody wants to live in dense urban cities. Just look at totally undesirable places like New York, Paris, San Francisco, where it’s so unaffordable because nobody actually wants to live there.

  • LazyReader

    I have plenty of access to public space, I enjoy the suburbs….it’s quieter, safer, better schools, reduced stress, same sense of community and quality of life. New York, Paris and San Francisco are s***holes for varying reasons. I was born in Baltimore so don’t preach urban community stuff to me cause I actually lived it.

  • LazyReader

    Before coal became widely available, wood was used not just for heating homes but also for industrial processes; it was the prdominant energy source for humanity. Even if half the land surface of Britain had been covered with woodland we could have made 1.25 million tonnes of bar iron a year (a fraction of current consumption) and nothing else. Even with a much lower population than today’s, manufactured goods in the land-based economy were the preserve of the elite. Deep green energy production – decentralised, based on the products of the land – is far more damaging to humanity than nuclear meltdown. If Europe shuts down their nuclear plants it will not be water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel and imported wood chips to run their industrial society. It’s THAT or reverting back to a pre-industrial society. On every measure (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges) coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power. So nuclear is what were gonna have to endorse. Were 7 billion people; were gonna be 9 billion by 2050 and they’re moving to cities from the villages, the world is now 50% urban, up from 14% in 1900, it’s gonna be 60% urban people by 2030, and 80% urban by 2050 that’s 7 BILLION people living in cities and with it a appetite for city living means 24/7 power demand And they cant rely on combustion for heating, cooking, light and transportation they’ll need electric power and that’s either gonna come from COAL or Nuclear. Let’s see global energy consumption is about 567 Exajoules or a power demand of about 18 terawatts. The third world where most of the worlds rainforests are located account for 60% of that. So the Third World needs to replace 340 Exajoules or 10 Terawatts of energy with renewable energy, currently 90% of the third worlds energy is met with wood or biomass. Never the less, 10 terawatts of wind power that’s 10 million 1 Megawatt wind mills then take into consideration the Betz limit that the maximum energy performance of a turbine is about 59% running efficiency which it often never runs at that level of performance, the average wind turbine efficiency is 30-35% , that’s less than a third so you need three times as many turbines to make up the difference; that’s 30 MILLION turbines then you have to build even more turbines cause the wind distribution is not universal all over the world so you have to send electricity from one site to another when the wind is stagnant which may require twice as many turbines so that’s 60 MILLION turbines. Then you have to install them so that’s 60 million acres of forest that has to go since it takes a acre of treeless land (as tall trees interfere with the wind pattern splaying against the turbines). it takes about a ton of of neodymium and other rare earth metal per turbine so that’s 60 million tons of rare earth metal. China whom consolidates 90% of the global supply, only produces 100,000 tons a year so it would take 600 years to mine it all assuming that much even exists. That’s a lot of Strip mining, probably that needs to be done in the rainforest regions of the world. And that’s just the third world, never mind the industrialized worlds energy demands. Don’t get me started where all the copper wire is gonna come from or all the Lithium to store it. Given the environmentalist uproar over mining…..anything. Good luck

  • Ben Phelps

    shitholes to some… yet many people love them. Are they wrong?

    I’m not trying to take your precious suburb away from you, that’s your choice and preference, but you are actively trying to prevent me from having the option to live in a dense, people-oriented city.

  • zoom314
  • thielges

    $200 is the undiscounted list price for HSR SF->LA. It sounds like you are comparing list price HSR to discounted airfare: apples and oranges. Like HSR systems everywhere else in the world, CAHSR will also offer discounted fares for lightly loaded trains.

    If you shop around you can find good deals on HSR fares like a TGV journey from Strasbourg to Barcelona for less that 50 euros. That’s almost triple the distance from SF to LA. The undiscounted fare for the same journey is about 200 euros.

  • LazyReader

    No I’m not, if you want to live in the city be my guest. But what role does HSR play in urban living. None. HSR is city to city transportation which is not a daily occurrence. The debate over HSR in California is not about technology, freedom, or anything. The debate is should California with it’s enormous financial liabilities and debts already on it’s table, build a very expensive railroad system between Los Angeles and San Francisco? The Answer, No.

    The State’s education system is in total shambles, California’s public pension system is grossly underfunded, it’s current infrastructure is falling apart, homelessness and poverty are the most severe in the nation, businesses are fleeing and the states been ranked last quality of life. The state’s feel good policies of financing non-citizens is draining their public resources.

    The emphasis behind California HSR was that the public transit systems in the metros would serve the people that took HSR to get there to begin with, car free. That reality hasn’t happened, BART in San Francisco is falling apart, they’ll need tens of billions to refurbish it, raising
    property taxes in order to do it. Los Angeles is building light rail to the tune of billions at the expense of cheap buses, not taking cars off the road. The fact is, California’s supposed car free future will cost state and federal taxpayers close to 400 billion dollars by 2040’s and
    close to a trillion in lifecycle costs.

  • John Nachtigall

    What is with the personal attacks? First I was stupid and now I need to “get a life”? I do have a life, following CAHSR is a hobby. I always am fascinated with how Mega-Projects fall into abject failure and I have been able to follow CAHSR since the start. It is amazing to watch the slow constant decline and amazing lack of execution.

    And I suppose if you throw out the 1st sentence you could interpret it that way. Of course I don’t understand why you would throw out the 1st sentence. My point is you cant accuse a news source of bias and failure to report when you are a news source with bias and failure to report. You want to know why people don’t support big transit projects…perhaps it is because transit advocates are not honest about the true costs and failures.

  • Update: Judge makes final ruling (on Halloween), reports Fresno Bee reporter Tim Sheehan today (for Sacramento Bee):
    “Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Richard Sueyoshi issued his ruling on Wednesday denying a motion by Hanford-area walnut farmer John Tos, the Kings County Board of Supervisors and other opponents to block the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s use of Proposition 1A bond funds for the project.”
    https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/article220956380.html

  • Isolated in your cultural wasteland of a suburb, you don’t seem to have a clue what traffic is like in your “shithole” cities.

    San Francisco could not handle another 250,000 cars on the road.

  • Train haters like you always fixate on traveling between SF and LA.

    You don’t seem to understand there are stations in between and most daily commutes will only be between a few stations. Unless you really are that stupid, it’s more likely you’re just trying to ignore inconvenient truths.

    Only about 6,000 people a day take the 1 hour, 40 minute flight from SF to LA and with plan ahead pricing as low as 25 dollars…

    It’s funny – in the sad, stupid way – you’re lowering the cost of flying from SF to LA down to just $25 to make non-existent high-speed rail ticket pricing look expensive.

    …the idea that 50,000-100,000 daily passengers (the fares will cost anywhere from 50-100+ dollars) will ride the trains is laughable.

    Given that Caltrain already has 65,000 daily passengers it’s laughable for anyone to try and claim the entire statewide HSR system will have fewer daily riders than just one of California’s commuter/intercity lines.

  • LazyReader

    San Francisco cant handle much of anything.

  • So there you go. A city under a million that needs a rail system.

  • LazyReader

    Or they could just as easily have run electric buses under those tunnels.
    First, restoring obsolete transit is not the same as modernizing. Electric rail transit was developed in the 1880s and and was largely superseded by buses in the 1920s. Running articulated buses under the tunnels or rubber tire metro. Smoother rides, no clickety clack of steel on steel, shorter braking
    distance, and most importantly greatly reduced rail wear or no rail at all. Even though
    tires routinely have to be replaced….changing a tire is not rocket
    science or expensive engineering. Mexico city one of the largest cities
    in the world and it uses rubber tire metro subway. Busan South Korea, a city of
    3.5 million has four rubber metro lines with a fifth on thew way, Paris
    a city of 2.2 million has 5 Metro lines on tires.

    Second, the transit backlog is due to bad management. Rather than spend money on maintenance of existing infrastructure, politicians and transit agencies have built new infrastructure. New York built or is building the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access
    projects; Washington the Silver Line, Maryland the Purple line, Boston the Green Line extension to Medford; San Francisco built BART to the airport and extensions to San Jose; and so forth. ALL THE WHILE the present systems they possess are deteriorating due to “lack of finances”. Rewarding badly managed agencies by giving them bigger budgets while they ignore their spending priorities sends the wrong signal to other transportation and infrastructure agencies.

    Third, transit ridership is declining nationwide. Even in New York and Washington because deteriorating infrastructure has led to unreliable and unsafe conditions. But it is also declining in places with new infrastructure such as Norfolk-Virginia Beach and Charlotte. The reason transit ridership is declining is because the alternatives to rail transit are either faster, more convenient less expensive in either operation or fares. It makes no sense to dump $100 billion on an industry that is losing revenue and customers.

    Fourth, contrary to claims, transit is irrelevant in most urban areas, not “Cities” or how we define cities. Of the approximately 360 census-defined urbanized areas in the US, outside a few major cities, in most of these areas transit carries no more than 1% of their population yet eats up half or more of their transportation budgets. Thus, transit could disappear tomorrow in a lot of these places and few would care let alone notice the few that did it would be cheaper to subsidize them directly for fares for ride hailing or vans, shuttles, jitney’s. A truly modern transit system or agency wouldn’t use infrastructure that is so prone to
    deterioration and break down. No urban area in America other than New York truly needs
    rail transit, and New York’s problems are due to a local failure to
    spend money on maintenance and shouldn’t be the responsibility of state
    or federal taxpayers.

  • Miles Bader

    My experience in Japan was that using the Shinkansen was in many cases more expensive and a bit slower than flying, but made up for it in so many ways:

    1. Comfort2. Ease of access: Getting to the Shinkansen platform from my desk at work took around 20-30 minutes (despite requiring two local trains). The Shinkansen stopped at more places, and Shinkansen stations were well-integrated into the local train network; despite good airport transit access, getting to the Shinkansen was just hugely more convenient.3. “Planning overhead”: To get good plane prices you had to reserve a fair bit in advance, but at non-peak periods you could literally just show up to the Shinkansen station 10 minutes ahead of departure time, buy a ticket from a vending machine, go through the fare gate, and board.4. Frequency: the Shikansen runs very often, and there’s just a lot less delay due to scheduling.

    Essentially the train was just a much more immediate and less heavyweight experience, and that’s worth something.

  • ben

    “California has 3 different faults to Japan’s fewer” Your ignorance on this is astounding and negitively shades any other argument you make.

  • A 60-foot transit bus has a fraction of the capacity of a 700-foot, ten-car BART train.

    You’d need to build much more complicated subways and stations, and we’d have never built the Transbay Tube for buses.

    In fact, once the was the Key System was shut down, traffic congestion got so bad planning didn’t take to long to start on a new rail system, what became BART and Muni Metro.

    You’re pretty typical of HSR/train opponents who are so self-centered and dim witted you can’t, or don’t want to understand, that not everyone has the same needs as you.

  • John Nachtigall

    I look forward to the opinion piece of the new non-partisan audit of the CAHSR system that just eviscerated management. I know how critical this site has been of CAHSR coverage in the past, so they must be thrilled that most newspapers in the state have covered this immediately and accurately. The Streetblog take on the matter will be illuminating to be sure.

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