Mega-Projects without Maps

And even if the project has been faced by problems of funding, and the starting point of High Speed Rail has shifted its initial focus from the southland to the north–and the length to the state capital in Sacramento sacrificed for an initial construction segment in the state’s Central Valley, for some time, the reluctance of Southern Californians to the project has been long brewing in communities who don’t want it to run through their land, the cost of a Bullet at c $77b to $100b has a more firm basis in the California Air Resource Board’s cap-and-trade policy; it would be payed for by the offset of carbon emissions, now authorized through 2030, making it part of an entirely different economy than the Border Wall, and even if its construction was altered in 2016, and is still open to debate; the hope is still for a San Jose-Los Angeles leg to extend north from Merced and Fresno, with hopes to extend south from Bakersfield.

California Legislative Analyst’s Office, 2016

The designs for the expansive images of a High Speed Rail network that circulated as of 2018 presented an expansive hopes to link regions in the large state. If the more recent map of California High Speed Rail–now amplified by a “Desert Xpress” to Las Vegas from the San Bernardino County, seems designed with the insouciance of a public transit map–distorting the shape of the state to accommodate the names of stations, and streamlining any sense of topographic variations–the preparation of this map hints at the readiness to accept that massive mega-project will indeed soon be complete, and the linking of Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, Fresno, Los Angeles, and San Diego–the six largest but geographically dispersed cities of the state–was an eventuality. Of course, maps paste over problems, and may remove actual crises, but the surety of the single blue line irrigating the state as an artery of transit suggests the deep desire for the reality of high speed rail.

XpressWest High Speed Rail California State Map

The project heralded as a basis for modernization, called for linking the mega-regions of California in a system boasting travel of over 200 miles per hour, to connect twenty-four cities by 800 miles of high-speed rail, as envisioned in a 2012 business plan–and link Sacramento to San Francisco and San Francisco to Los Angeles. The future-facing network promising economic growth was a mandate for infrastructural improvement, or in fact multiple lines, each a separate project, that suggested a plan to unite a fragmented state economy, and indeed create a basis for further growth: workers might arrive in Silicon Valley or San Francisco; high housing costs in Silicon Valley and San Francisco might decrease.

Statewide_Rail_Modernization, 2012

The current plan remains a far cry from what seems a forgotten Obama era. In Newsom’s very first State of the State address this February, he promised to “scale back” the line still further, first seeming to entertain plans to cancel the project, and then to focus on the completion of a part of the San Joaquin line, shown in light blue, building trains from Merced or Madera to Bakersfield–a Central Valley nucleus, as it were, and initial investment along what was the clearest corridor that was already built–and the flattest stretch of a Central Valley Line on which much work had been done, prioritizing the hundred mile stretch that has already been employing thousands of construction workers in twenty-six projects, some drilling columns eighty feet into the ground for viaducts, passageways, span bridges, trenches and highway separations.

Newsom first announced plans to reduce the mega-project, inherited from its long-time champion Jerry Brown, ostensibly due to continuing delays and increasing costs, and promised increased future online transparency for all of its growing costs, which meant that there “isn’t a path . . . from San Francisco to LA” that was so desired by commuters, or, for that matter, from Sacramento to San Diego. He was speaking, he later claimed, only about using funds to concentrate attention on the central line of the SF-LA line, rather than to forgo the project, as a map foregrounding a Central Valley Segment revealed, and Newsom’s explicit attention to turning to a region that was long neglected by much of the state.

From my position near San Francisco, in the Bay Area, the curtailment of the huge project seemed more than likely–and it resembled the curtailing of a huge high-speed bus line projected for Oakland, CA: while planned to link Berkeley and San Leandro in an underserved transit corridor, with the side-benefit of improving the pot-holed streets of much of East Oakland, the promise for an analogous “rapid transit” route was scaled back from its terminuses, as local neighborhoods protested disruptive road work and installations of transit hubs–pressures analogously NIMBY to the fears of extending the rail to San Jose, and limiting the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor to a line parallel to BART.

The curtailment of local transit plans however did not release the amount of funds that a pause in the far more ambitious High Speed Rail Project sought to offer the federal government. Did the Commander-in-Chief, feeling rather cornered, catch the televised chiron during his executive time, and see it as a clever way to obtain necessary cash for a mega-project that increasingly seemed financially rather strapped. (This betrays the sense of an executive of a corporation, ruling by fiat, rather than an executive branch of government.) The High Speed Rail Project became a target to be tarred with Democratic profligacy. Indeed, the gleeful tweet of McCarthy–a long-time sustainer of the border “wall” and Republican from Kern County–may have critically inflected debate about High-Speed Rail: McCarthy not only quickly wrote the new Transportation Secretary to ask she block $650 million in federal funding designed to produce electricity for the rail line, and the Bakersfield Represntative was quick to re-interpret Newsom’s speech as incorrectly affirming “the train to nowhere has stopped.”

Newsom blamed the misinterpretation of his intent on its reduction to a chiron. But perhaps the traffic in chirons, slogans, and chants that the nation (and news media) are accustomed to glossing, interpreting, and expanding in recent years, especially about the Border Wall, which was born in 140 characters–a medium Trump has favored, and continued to use even after Twitter doubled its character count to 280–despite requests to explain its benefit to the nation in 140 characters or less. Did the Commander-in-Chief, feeling cornered by Congress, take the chyron as an opportunity to try to reallocate federal funds?

Rarely have public projects become so personally identified. The problem of mapping the mega-project was not the only reason that Trump attacked it so openly: Newsom retorted back that this was “CA’s money,” would in no way be diverted. It was not a long shot to guess that Trump wanted to divert the funds to his own pet project: rarely has a President tried to make a public works project his brand, both identifying so closely with it and passing it off as a panacea that might in the future bear his own name. More than a mega-project, the border wall is an emblem of his lack of vision for the nation, and his limited vision of what government does. The project achieves, it bear reflection, if it may not be needed to be said, the exact reverse in its intent: dividing rather than connecting, creating a true sinkhole for funds rather than creating growth, seeking to obstruct people rather than connecting them, and creating a monument to racist ideologies rather than a structure of public use. It is a promised monument to a new future, of enclosure, unilateralism, and fear, an obstruction to the environment rather than offering transit across it. (Multiple lawsuits have been brought about the environmental consequences of the Bullet train, to be sure, yet there has been a sustained blindness to environmental dangers a border wall poses to protected lands and habitat along the southwestern border region.)

There remains no sense of a clear map for the Border Wall. The combination of fencing, barriers, and bollard fencing is all that exists of promises to build a 1,000 mile long concrete fence have proved insurmountable, least of all for its $25b construction cost in remote terrain far from roads–but the battle between two visions of the future, and two attempts to imagine the purpose of the state and even of federal government, made the contest that devolved to Twitter exceptionally apt, given that it has become the grounds on which Trump has advertised alleged “victories” as the allocation by the Republicans in the House Appropriations Committee of $1.6b to “begin construction of the wall along the U.S. border” in mid-2017–even though the map has never been that clear.

The map seemed even more distant after topographical obstacles were included, the base-map revealing the difficulty of the terrain–

Map byLazaro GamioAxios (January, 2018) Data: Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting/OpenStreetMap contributors, Homeland Infrastructure Foundation-Level Data

–and lack of any apparent plan to traverse the most mountainous regions of the Rio Grande or regions of environmental sensitivity.

Touting the border wall as a “very important instrument” disguised the fact that it lacked any proven value beyond a robust conceit. The conceit of the wall is invoked as if it were technologically sound. But there is no technological infrastructure for the project, save as a suspension of rights of immigrants seeking asylum who are processed not only at border checkpoints–and the image of the wall is a conceit promoted if not manufactured by Border Patrol–

–in a sort of connect the dots game, linking outposts and detention centers, jails, and holding centers near or in proximity to the border which the “technology”of the wall claims to amplify, or make more effective as they are increasingly full or over-stressed–

Although such centers have blossomed nation-wide, and populations in ICE centers exist far from the southern border, apprenhensions of detainees have grown along the border, as the number of border guards has almost tripled in the past two decades–a large constituency that has championed the border wall.

Pillaging the piggy bank and reallocating funds in creating ways is something of a Trumpist trick, a budgetary sleight of hand itself almost Trump’s brand. Could Trump have seen the sum allocated to a high speed rail project as a source of needed cash transferred from an alternative mega-project to redirect to his own? Since the mega-project was closely linked to California, the target would have been low-hanging fruit indeed. And Trump always like to project charges as a way to deflect them: although poor geographic mapping of the border wall made it destined to for cost over-runs, projecting cost over-runs into the Golden State deflected attention from the border wall by quite deceptively promoting as a more financially contained mega-project, even a more responsible use of public monies, and targeting funds as if they might be reallocated to the border during his emergency. Trump’s style of self-gifting is not Washington as usual, but financial juggling and budgetary reallocation specific to the Trump era. (The $6.1b Trump waved a wand and reallocated from Generals in the Department was deemed of less priority–“I said, ‘What are you going to use it for?’ And I won’t go into details, but it didn’t sound too important to me“—would provide funds for extending border barriers along the southwestern border by an extra 284 miles, not approved by Congress. Many still worry about massive reductions to foreign aid, another possible sacrificial lamb to be slain before a projected border wall, possibly including hurricane relief in Puerto Rico, though this seems removed from the table for now.)

Such over-optimistic gambits to secure an additional billions by declaring a national emergency seem a sort of last minute move to avoid a tantrum and political embarrassment. Trump has declared a national emergency, essentially, all the more quickly to disenfranchise the legal rights of asylum seekers, and to expand the authority of Border Patrol forces along the southwestern border, by declaring a humanitarian and national security “crisis,” promoting fears of national safety and vulnerability, rather than concern for the fate of detained children, migrants, and those seeking asylum. To be sure, Trump has not shown himself easily persuaded by maps that reveal actual or true national emergencies–and perhaps to have little attention for them.

Rather than proving a boondoggle with no clear map, the federal monies allocated to California’s High Speed Rail Project–the early recipient of some $3.3 billion in stimulus funding back in prehistory (2009)–responded to a real emergency in failing infrastructure. The Trump administration attempted to cease to support the project quite abruptly, asking the federal inspector general’s office to audit a project that has already cost some $5.4b, wary of its rationale of emissions reductions and climate change. Only $12.7b of the $37b needed to complete the High Speed Rail Project in its entirety exists, and a completion date has been pushed to 2033.

The High-Speed Rail mega-project however seemed a bit of a no-brainer, and began with a 2008 voter-approved bond for a Bullet Train. Transportation upgrades were long perceived as a need by state residents and commuters, and the high-speed rail met a need o to reduce travel time, cut diesel and gas emissions, and decrease accidents as well, eliminating some ten million miles of vehicle travel, as well as potentially cutting unneeded air travel, and link towns or cities whose absence of air service put a strain on their economies. The mega-project promptly attracted Republican ire, however, and all of California’s fourteen republican members of the House, who tried to block approval of the federal grant until the project was fully audited; high-speed rail became a bit of a partisan football with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao–who with her husband Mitch McConnell must have been long eyeing the funds for other uses in the budget to redirect to the border wall.

The far more sophisticated project–or at least more conducive to increasing mobility and infrastructure–comes with whopping price tag that has grown beyond $77 billion, almost twice its originally estimated cost of $39 billion, without even being close to being completed, to use a figure of 2009—and and become steeply challenged by the Trump administration. Many have targeted the Bullet Train as a boondoggle, in an openly partisan struggle for allocating funds for infrastructure. While the course of the proposed Bullet Train has been notionally mapped for many, the idea of linking San Francisco to Los Angeles remains awfully abstract, hard to get a purchase on where it would run, and a bit elusive, so broad-ranging has the notion of linking the many communities in the central valley along a single high-speed rail line been in a state where Amtrack runs slowly, along the coast, and express trains are often few–even for short-distance commuting, and the idea of linking the East Bay to San Jose seems long stalled.

The massive project has attracted lawsuits like flies, and demands realignment of Highway 99, and the images of the rail’s progress isn’t inspiring, despite the positing of an interactive map supposed to show progress on its construction–but which show places that most folks watching online don’t even plan to travel–

BuildHSR, screenshots of interactive_map

–and for which the information about construction projects (designated by pylons) and possible delays or road-closures due to the rail project have not motivated further public support.

California High Speed Rail Authority/screenshot

But the need for High Speed Rail Project are also staring at us in the face–a recent global composite Nikhil Sharma of descarteslabs created of atmospheric NO₂ based on recent readings of ESA’s Sentinel-5P satellite shows a density of fuel burning and combustion in the area that pops out even in the United States–and, indeed, reveals a true national emergency of international and indeed global scope.

Nikhil Sharma/descarteslabs-team

–and while due to large urban traffic across the Bay Area and SoCal, to be sure, traces a clear, dark line along the Central Valley–or rather threads that delineate the current highways that run the course of the California coast and Central Valley. To be sure, much air pollutionthat the Bay Area generates flows to the Central Valley, whose three mountain ranges create a “pool for pollutants,” but automobiles contribute to below-average air quality that the rail is hoped to help resolve–and allow greater growth in a region that is already constrained by poor transit options.

Nikhil Sharma/
Nikhil Sharma/descarteslabs; data from ESAs Sentinel-5P Satellite

Can a more persuasive map be built for the High Speed Rail Project, which seems destined to die within highly partisan debate? To be sure, drilling more deeply into the viaducts under construction that span the San Joaquin River and enter Fresno County, crossing the Cottonwood Creek in rural Madera county, or the many products moving Route 99 to make way for the high-speed rail lines, rerouting the infrastructure of the Central Valley.

Viaduct for High Speed Rail near Fresno/Jim Wilson (NY Times)

Such projects are truly huge–but don’t jump out from the map in ways that might help orient viewers to the extent of progress.

Build HSR/California High-Speed Rail Authority
screenshot of interactive map

While the need for the rail project exists on multiple levels–to expand clogged transportation arteries, reduce fuel emissions, and increase safety, as well as stimulate the Central Valley’s economy–actual levels of use are hard to gauge until the service begins.

The project may be significantly curtailed, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced, to core artery or initial phase–focussing on a stretch from Merced to Bakersfield, rather than the full line planned from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The result would be only to build an expanded version of “Phase One” of the project that would be limited to a reduced nucleus of the original plans for a Bullet Train slated to provide high-speed rail from Sacramento to San Diego–but faced with the difficulties of crossing two mountain ranges, and the difficulty of crossing either the Diablo Range between Merced and Gilroy, or entering Kern and Los Angeles counties from Bakersfield, across the Tejon Pass in the Transverse Range, the project has been redimensioned to run through the Central Valley Corridor–“Phase One” of construction, as it were, from Merced, the site of a new UC Campus, to Bakersfield at the Central Valley’s end–

California High-Speed rail, Proposed Statewide Alignment (2016)

“First Stage,” Central Valley Corridor

The announcement elicited some skepticism, and many attacks. Rather than a “phase one” of the original plans for a High Speed Rail System voters approved a bond for in 2008, or even a key piece of the projected High Speed Rail System, the remnant of the larger project seemed small; it was quickly re-presented as connecting Silicon Valley and Bakersfield, in order to create the illusion of linking at least one economic hub, reflects the compromised availability of funds from the current administration, in an era when the High Speed Rail system seems to be competing for federal funds with other expansive projects that are allegedly also about infrastructure, but have been far more poorly mapped.

Rather than present the first leg of the High-Speed Passenger Train slated to open in 2025, connecting San Jose to the Central Valley, the shift of priorities to the Central Valley was argued to respond to the development of the region, although it seemed to folks in San Francisco and Los Angeles that the route being championed as meeting a need was a bit removed from their actual needs.


In scaling down the plans of previous administrations and better economic outlooks to a Central Valley Corridor, able to connect the growing city of Fresno to a region with poor transportation but growing mobile populations who would suffer the most from increased cost of gas–Newsom told the state “let’s be real,” in what seemed a refreshing frankness, and foregrounded the benefits of the smaller system to reducing air pollution–so long as it was used, and hopefully as it would become a model that would encourage future public or private investment in its expansion. With only $12.7 b on hand or at least budgeted, and increased resistance from the federal government, a more modest project may be necessary than the originally proposed 800 miles of track with twenty-four stations, in addition to those in the state’s largest cities.

The “rump” of the high-speed rail system surely looks fairly uninspiring, and seems all too close to the “road to nowhere” that its opponents claim–especially in a state where more and more residents who demand infrastructural improvements live far from the inland interior of the state–although it lacks public services and demands far more investment for economic improvement.


The limited possible users that the rail would actually connect, based on the admittedly old 2010 Census, which doesn’t reflect the expanding extra urban areas and fast-growing mega suburbs that may well emerge near Merced in the North, led many to call it a “train to nowhere,” as the map didn’t totally make sense, and there were also graphics to fit the monicker, showing large construction projects paused midway, serving as infrastructural interrogatives.

Did people from Fresno really need to get to Bakersfield? The idea of facilitating the new University of California campus in Merced was hardly a sufficient or real reason to build the rail, and despite growing populations, this 2016 map was not particularly encouraging as it was far from the 5, and ran through some pretty less populated regions of the state, rather than providing a working model that the state could get behind.

High Speed Rail Project, CA/AP/February, 2019

The images of the settlement of the state, even in terms of the housing and population levels, seem for now far removed from the Central Valley, and the question of how residents would use this smaller stretch immediately arise in one’s mind.

Mapbox/OpenStreetMap

For the actual hubs of population would be removed from the rail line, paradoxically, but the rail’s existence, if truly high-speed, with the prices of gasoline, might make it incumbent on them to link to. And because home prices have been pushing residents of the Bay Area and Los Angeles out to the fastest growing regions of suburban regions from Visalia to Modesto, if not to Fresno, by 2027, and transforming the expansion of the Urban-Wildland Interface, in ways the 2010 Census may fail to capture, it may well be that the scene on the ground is so poorly captured by current maps of population deriving from the 2010 Census–

.

But the dangers that this region would be left behind from the rest of the state, and be diminished as a region without attracting economic interest, are pressing, and the responsibility of the state to address them real, as the image of a fissuring of the state gains considerable (if so far quite minimal) exponents, in Tim Draper’s libertarian project for effectively building walls across the state:

California topography reveals that this path would be the easiest route to construct, despite hopes to link to current transit hubs —

–the expansion of the rail system at such a future date must also surely account for the expansion of local rail and transit systems, as BART, already at Millbrae, and planning to roll out future service at some point to San Jose, and the hope that Los Angeles would be better linked to Bakersfield in the future–that while creating a less classy image (and far less seductive image) of SF to LA high speed rail, the original proposal of Jerry Brown, may be a crucial segment for which funding would be strategic and needed, and future technologies may well be better able to resolve.

Yet the rub may well be that many of the existing funding projects, here noted by red stars, were (predictably?) concentrated far outside those markets–so far.

The collision between these two mega-projects to an extent reflects an atmosphere of hyper-partisanship, in which public expenditures like High Speed Rail are targeted as if they were partisan projects. Exponents of one party are attacked for projects that they promote, as mega-projects are fetishized as an excuse for actual leadership: the problem of both mega-projects may lie not in the difficulties of mapping them, but in the poor and unclear visions of government that they project and symbolize, and the roles of governments in public life they suggest. The difference can even be seen as a sort of disconnect, and the skill of the ability to pry a sense of actual needs from public legislators–and public opinion–by the fetish of the border fence.

California Poverty Rate/Californai Sentencing Institute

–and desperation–

California Reported Crime Rate/California Sentencing Institute

The point would be to help these underserved communities have better access to transportation to move them to jobs, and remove obstructions for commute routes–as well as to pave the road to future projects.

For the projects suggest not only different visions of the role of government, however, and the role of government in responding to public goods and needs. Both are attacked for their grandiosity as lying outside the bounds of practicality or available federal funds, but the competing visions of such mega-projects reflect a dire dissensus in the needs of the nation, that goes beyond the availability of federal funds, but reflect a deep uncertainty about future visions of the country, or of national priorities, and increased demand for action that would respond to real national emergencies. Never mind that much of the wall will be built on privately owned land and across canyons and rivers, including the Rio Grande river, which will be difficult to accommodate

Both are plagued by a related problems of being poorly mapped. The border wall is a medieval technology for a twenty-first century problem, but it is a also a fake–and indeed junk–technology, likely to have no positive impact on national safety, and only erode both international relations and, perhaps more immediately, migrants’ plight. It serves no interests of those living along the border, but will serve to curtail or eliminate the rights of immigrants, and balloon centers of detention in inhumane ways, where the legal rights of those detained–including children taken from their parents–will be denied as we expand a carceral state.

The mega-project of the border wall has been so effectively promoted and presented as a needed response to a crisis of national security worth $8B, and of such urgency it needs that it demands no map; it is presented as responding to a manufactured national emergency. The magnification of fear of border crossings lead to a refusal to acknowledge costs it would place on the region, both on civil liberties, the delicate environment of borderlands, and experience of those seeking asylum, as it is fetishized as a needed mega-project that fetishizes the junk technology of the Border Wall in a tautological trap. The mega-project is promoted as a necessity, and a fail-safe, insurmountable project that would curtail a gamut ranging from cross-border transit of gangs, criminality, drugs, human trafficking, as well as workers who undercut wages, but blind us from the need to address problems endemic in our society, by bracketing them as invading specters.

The fetishization of a false technology to “secure the border” became a meme over the past year. From the props that would have provided a gift to investors from J.P. Morgan, Wells Fargo and Blackrock, and aligned Wall Street with the Right Wing demand for border safety. This was evident in grandiose protypes displayed at the border in October, 2018, now reduced to a “totally effective” Steel Slat Barrier–presented as something as a Christmas present to his supporters amidst budgetary fights on December 20, 2018, as the nation stood on the brink of the first government shutdown–and suggest the spiraling down of a grandiose promises–.

—to something promised to be “totally effective and beautiful,” and indeed “artistically designed”–something that “you can easily see through,” as if that guaranteed greater transparency, and a policy of insurance that “we’re going to get a wall,” “we’re going to get a barrier,” no matter what it was called or what you’d want to call it–as if a “high tech” picket fence was a modern solution to a global problem, rather than an even more primitive response, almost atavistic for a middle-class home owner, but also an easier fetish to define pseudo-“rights” of land ownership and property. (WaPo’s attempt to get at the actual size of this truly bizarre rendering, positing ten inch wide slats topped by spikes of about a foot, offer the back-of-the-envelope calculation of 4.6 million slats along the length of the US-Mexico border, or 9 million cubic feet of steel, if the SUV near the wall is shown in proportion to the barrier.)

“Steel Slat Barrier” Announced on Twitter, December 21, 2019

A Christmas gift to the nation before heading to Mar a Lago? A downward spiral in border defense was obscured bythe promise that the “suitably spiky” form was as “beautiful” as the walls that Candidate Trump conjure in the minds of his audiences, who would be able to be convinced that its was “totally effective,” even without a map.

Even promotional maps shown on FOX of the proposed steel bollard fencing on the Rio Grande–a reduced “border wall” of twenty to thirty foot tall, for a price-tag of $1.37 b–announced as “effective” barrier for the region of the greatest cross-border traffic and apprehensions, hardly appears to responds to a national emergency, even in the “busiest corridor of illegal crossings”–which presumes such sites were stable, and not both in flux and adjusted by migrants based on ad hoc problems and conditions.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Statistics/AP

The presentation of both of these mega-projects offer opposed visions of the role of government, to be sure, and the role of a government to respond to social needs. The reprogramming of enough money to arrive at something like $8B in funds for the building of the wall by fiat–in a fit of pique, raised beyond than the earlier $5.7 B Trump had earlier requested from Congress, elevated the border barrier to the government’s primary national responsibility–even if Trump had to run around the U.S. Congress to secure necessary public monies for the steel fencing.

Both of these debated mega-proejcts promise to respond reveal a deep problems of the real lack of national infrastructure, although only the barrier promises to do so immediately. The promises that they make responds to human needs, or project solutions that would respond to needs, and suggest a desire for the potential of infrastructure to offer improvement in people’s lives. One does so more honestly. For the High Speed Rail project respond to a national crisis of much more concrete and pressing terms and would present a true infrastructural improvement, and a real technology from which we would benefit. If not built, it would, in essence, fence in the country and the nation to a quickly worsening infrastructure, all in order to build a protective fence as a border barrier that seemed destined to be a future Ozymandias, suitably stationed in the desert, far from centers of population or settlement and far from national needs.

The actual crisis of commuting and road transportation is evident in the ever-increasing level of fuel emissions and the increasingly evident poor infrastructure of roads that run along the Valley, also evident in the lacking infrastructure among growing urban agglomerations on the eastern seaboard, in the Southeast, and in Texas–perhaps not as apparent to those with private jets or who just aren’t faced by the prospect of rising gasoline prices, or ready to admit that transportation costs will not remain low–and pose no credible environmental risks. (The Bullet is criticized by opponents as a boondoggle whose reduction of fuel emissions is typical of the public costs justified by Global Warming or climate change, by those who still prefer to see climate change as a pretext or hoax.)

The emergency is all to real in California. Such costs might as well start from the ever-increasing levels of congestion on Highway 5–and the almost certain threat that the emissions released on the freeway will only grow as passenger traffic expands in coming decades–but it is not presented as a crisis so much as a boondoggle, by its opponents. In part, a map that states its importance has yet to be created. But perhaps we’ve become to used to looking at the wrong maps. The map for building a reduced “Phase One” of the Bullet fails to communicate the promise of what could be achieved by the project, and raises real fears that the project would be killed if it existed only in a segment no one rode, causing “the choo choo” to languish. To do so would undercut what the Bullet Train promised supporters, and becomes something of an easy target for opponents: its short service could lead to cancelling the entire project, or reduce public support for meeting its goals rather than providing a model of investment in similar infrastructural projects.

When first suggested as part of a future map of America back in prehistory, during the forgotten age of the promised stimulus package back in 2009–it even elicited protests from regions that felt themselves slighted, and excluded from economic development, as Kentucky and Tennessee, but presented 17,000 miles of rail that were announced to be built by 2030 to revitalize the economy.

U.S. High Speed Oil Association/2009

And the idea of the expansion of a larger, high-rail system across much of the country, if once limited to the seaboards, is now imagined as approaching 220mph, “US High Speed Rail System” that is projected over thirty years, but would slash oil imports, and was imagined to be the smart result of a promised federal stimulus.

US High Speed Rail System

The real dangers of cancelling or delaying the scope of such a project are considerable. For the project could be a model for public rail projects–even if it has been attacked by opponents as a “waste of $5.4 billion” and as “going nowhere fast.” The project is blamed for being planned by public government, indeed, rather than private investment–in the manner of the Texas rail project that is currently proposed to connect Houston and Dallas. The same critics point to the difference of a project that is built to connect two large cities, with a stop at Texas A&M; but the real project is not so great from linking San Francisco and Los Angeles, with a stop in Merced, or won’t be by 2040–especially as the state is desperate to grow Merced as a new member of the UC system. The involvement of private investors in the Texas project may attract less litigation. But it is unfairly contrasted to how California “chose a route that will realistically have substantial demand and [fewer] construction complications.” The design of the geographic route was not the problem; the route was pretty evident, and in need of infrastructure that was insufficient for future growth.

The problem of creating high-speed rail corridors is not limited to California, of course, and is a recognized public need to increase ability to knit the country together–and to grow local economies, and imagined in considerable detail when that national goal back was presented way back in 2009 as a basis for economic advance–and a mandate for resolving infrastructural needs by creating active corridors of economic growth.

Both mega-projects point up the growing difficulties of clarifying what constitutes an emergency, to be sure, as well as using maps to shape public consensus about their benefits. Unfortunately, the junk maps that are made about “illegal” migrants arrests or alleged criminal activity create scary maps that have almost nothing to do with the border wall–but are successful in demonizing migrants. The problems of mapping that each megaproject faces are steep, because the calculus of benefits and costs are so far from their surface. But it is striking that if “fake” maps of the arrests of illegal immigrants who are deemed criminals–or maps that foreground the crimes of those who are identified as “illegal” immigrants, as if they were the only perpetrators of violent crimes–have gained a persuasive power in the news to justify the border wall, while the actual compelling need for infrastructural improvements are poorly debated because they haven’t been well mapped–or perhaps the maps are sadly removed from the actual debates. And the deep problems in our infrastructure–which are essentially problems in how we understand the nation–and indeed what is a national good.

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Filed under American Politics, border policy, border wall, infrastructure, US Politics

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