Opinion: The One Book Legislators Should Read Before Voting on High-Speed Rail


Sometime soon, the California state legislature is going to vote on whether to move forward with the bonds necessary to start the construction of California's controversial high-speed rail system. Before they vote, they should consider the new official business plan, independent studies, the legislative analyst's advice to delay -- and one history book.

That history, Railroaded, by the Stanford historian Richard White, may have been the best book I read last year. It was a finalist for the recently announced Pulitzer Prizes. And it holds a lesson: big, grand rail projects across open space, with shaky projections about traffic, are cons.

White wasn't writing about high-speed rail. He was writing about the transcontinental railroads. In the popular imagination, the transcontinentals were a triumph. But as White makes clear, they were not. They were destructive, to the finances of individuals and governments, to the economy, to the environment, to established ways of life.

And they never lived up to their promise. The history of the railroads is to over-promise and under-deliver. It took 30 years for rail traffic to catch with the projections and promises of the continentals.

What is the relevance? High-speed rail, a big project across the center of California with shaky finances and ridership projections, resembles the transcontinental con. And if you don't believe, ask White, who has written extensively against the California high-speed rail project. Two of the best of his many pieces are here and here.

Reading White, it's clear that any approval of high-speed rail must have constitutional provisions that protests taxpayers -- both state and federal -- against contributing any more than the money already promised for this project. If there's really a market for high-speed rail in California -- and I've seen no clear evidence that there is -- then this shouldn't be a problem at all.

So read away, lawmakers and Californians. And remember that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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