Bullet train dying — even though two potent critiques still ignored

Does Jerry Brown really think he can get away with arguing, as he did Thursday, that we need to keep following the costly course laid out by the California High-Speed Rail Authority even as he unveils the most austere budget in modern state history? Or is this all kabuki before the plug is pulled? Weekend columns by Dan Walters and George Skelton make it plain that the Sacramento establishment is ready for a drastic response. Good. But what’s amazing about the media finally turning on the bullet train is that they’ve done so even while ignoring two really powerful arguments against the boondoggle.

It’s amazing enough that the state would commit billions to a project that has been scorned by a half-dozen independent evaluators as wasteful, deceitful and mismanaged even as it cuts funds to the blind, disabled and impoverished elderly.

But while there’s been plenty of coverage of the fact that the bullet train’s business plan violates state law, as far as I know I’m the only journalist who’s noted that the bullet train breaks federal rules governing stimulus spending that have the force of law. Especially in a post-Solyndra era, shouldn’t this, yunno, matter?

Yet there’s one more reason for Californians — especially the social justice set — to look at the bullet train and want to tear their hair out: It is a use of scant transit/transportation dollars that helps the wealthy and the middle class, not the poor.

All the arguments made by Los Angeles gadfly Eric Mann against how the giant Metropolitan Transportation Authority operated hold true today for any public policy that holds fixed rail routes are better than unglamorous but inifinitely more utilitarian buses. This is from a 1996 Los Angeles Times article:

Mann “accuses the agency of discriminating against minority and poor bus riders by pouring money into rail projects that will largely benefit white suburban commuters,” amounting to … a “separate and unequal system of public transportation.” MTA officials deny the allegations of discrimination and defend their plans to build a network of rail lines as necessary to solve the region’s traffic problems.

Buses are crowded, dirty and dangerous, he complains.

By contrast, trains are uncrowded, comfortable, clean and safe.

One statistic he often cites: rail riders who account for 6% of the MTA’s ridership are consuming 70% of the MTA capital and operating budget.

Transit officials dismiss Mann … and consider him doctrinaire. …

In the court case [targeting MTA policies], Mann’s group has powerful legal allies in the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ACLU.

Robin Kelley, a New York University professor of history and African studies, sees the legal battle as an important civil rights case that attacks “a kind of class-based racism that maintains the invisible barriers.”

Transit agencies, “not just in L.A. but elsewhere, are getting out of the business of transporting the poor,” he said. “They’re moving into the business, more so than ever, of making suburbia accessible to urban cores.”

The MTA contends in court papers that the the rail lines, once completed, will be heavily used by minorities.

Mann, however, said the lawsuit is part of an old struggle with a new twist.

“Buses have been symbols of the civil rights movement since the days of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery boycott,” Mann recently told author Mike Davis in the Nation.

“But the issues have fundamentally changed. Then it was the right to sit at the front of the bus; now it is the right to have a seat or a bus, period.”

Nothing has changed in the mid-1990s. For the left, buses, because they typically use fossil fuels, are evil. So what if they’re much better for helping poor people get around. Bullet trains likely to be used by the wealthy and middle class? Now they’re cool.

If this is social justice, social justice is a joke.

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