March 14th, 2012

High Speed Train

CA HSR Hearing

I attended the California High Speed Rail hearing in Mountain View last night. (The link that I posted a couple of days ago no longer works, alas.) Note that this was a formal hearing of a California Senate budget subcommittee, not just an informational meeting. State Senator Joe Simitian presided, and there were two other state senators and one assembly member attending and asking questions. The Chairman of the California High Speed Rail Commission (with one other member) gave testimony, followed by the representative of the Peer Review Group that has raised good questions about the project, followed by people from the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's office, followed by a reprise of the CAHSR Commission members, and finally, about 9:30 PM, public comments.

Senator Simitian said he'd stay all night if necessary to listen to everyone, but did limit people to two minutes. (Most people managed to stay within limits. A couple didn't understand what a time limit was.) The other legislators departed at various times. My compliments to Mr. Simitian for his willingness to put up with all of us, and also at how he ably tamped down the outbursts both pro and con that, if unmoderated, would have reduced the meeting to a shouting match.

The Mountain View Center for the Arts, which was pretty full at the start of the hearing at 7 PM, had relatively few people left in it by the time my name came up at 11:30 PM. (For a while, I was speculating that I wouldn't have to worry about getting to the office on Wednesday morning from Fremont as I'd still be in Mountain View!)

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I wish I could have stayed until the bitter end, but by then I was serious low on blood sugar and shaky all the way home to Fremont, where I finally got to bed after 1:30 AM only to have to be up again at 4:50 AM in order to be in my office before 7 AM for a meeting. I do not know how much longer the hearing ran, but I assume they were going to eventually run out of people.

There was a mix of people speaking, both pro and con. I sort of wish they'd asked us filling out speaker cards to mark "pro" or "con" so that possibly Mr. Simitian could have alternated speakers on each side, which might have helped eliminate some of the duplication of speeches. Some of the speakers were what I characterize as "Tea Party" types (like the guy sitting behind me mumbling all night long wearing an anti-Obama t-shirt). Others are only involved because they live near the Caltrain right of way and want the entire 50 miles in a tunnel (and not the slightest bit of disturbance to their homes). Others have legitimate concerns on what is the biggest infrastructure project the state has undertaken since the building of the state highway network. Others are enthusiastically in favor. I reckon that both supporters and opponents had speakers up their who managed to discredit their sides' arguments by the screwball way in which they spoke, like the guy who introduced himself as "God."

(Incidentally, while I favor the project overall and voted for Prop 1A that authorized the bonds, I'm not 100% pleased with the project. I think the route is not ideal — I'd prefer the Dumbarton Bridge - Altamont Pass routing — but I'm trying to be a realist and say, "Let's get something built. It's 40 years overdue already!")

One theme that kept coming back up was the people who said, "Put it up for a vote again! Revote! Revote! Revote! It's a democracy! If you don't let us vote again, it's a dictatorship!" Well excuse me, people, but if you're going to keep shouting that, then why should we even have a legislature at all? Why bother having elected officials whose job it is to govern the state? Just put everything up to a vote, right? (And if you say, "Yeah, that would be great!" I don't think you and I have much common ground.) The reason the original HSR plan had to be voted on was because the state constitution requires that general-obligation bonds be approved by the voters. What the constitution doesn't require is that the side that loses should get to keep re-running the election over and over again until they get the result they want. The elected officials, who are the ones who will have to vote to release the bond money, are asking tough questions of the CA HSR Commission, and in fact are doing their jobs properly. If you're just opposed to all government spending of any sort, for any reason whatsoever (which a fair number I heard last night appeared to be), then that's a completely different question, and you should be working on overthrowing the government instead of just derailing a single project.