While Donald Trump made the mega-project of a border wall the basis of his candidacy, using the proposed innovation of a “wall” — a continuous obstacle to the specter of cross-border transit–to pole-vault into the political domain and to stake his waning reputation on as a President–he’s long attacked the mega-project of building High Speed rail along California’s central valley. The project destined to bring more economic benefits and jobs has indeed become a target of Trump’s anger, as he has promoted his own mega-project of national security, leading Trump to cry “We want that money now!” as he has struggled to allocate further funds for the construction of the border wall. The slightest hint that California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown’s successor, would scale back or re-dimension Brown’s own pet project because it “would cost too much” prompted Trump to reclaim federal funds as “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project”–code for unneeded public expenditure–as tries to remap the southwestern border with a new barrier.
Both mega-projects–however dissimilar in nature–don’t address political problems, but constellations of issues, from infrastructural needs, climate change, and fuel consumption to immigration, criminality, and drugs, promoting projects of mass appeal in different ways, that suggest targeted projects addressing constituencies, promising to address deep infrastuctural problems to very limited degrees–their purported boldness hindered by limited funds, and facing limited support to be enacted on the scale that their promoters celebrate. While it’s uncertain that either will be completed in a realistic schedule that has been announced, the projects from opposite sides of the political spectrum seem mirror-images, ostensibly designed as investments but suggesting almost opposed ideas of government or the public good. Bound to collide with one another, both advance promised changes in landscapes, projecting solutions to mega-problems they cannot fully address, and invite fantasies of the further promises they might meet.
Hot on the heels of Trump’s fuming at Congress that “with the wall, they want to be stingy,” matched by the veiled threat that “we have options that most people don’t really understand,” Trump found the time ripe to chasten California’s governor for “wasting billions of dollars”–and charge that the state in fact “owed” the federal government $3.5 billion. The handy figure could increase the $1.375 billion allocated in budget negotiations for fencing on the Rio Grande, and in a budgetary shuffle increase desired funding for Trump’s mega-project, to reach the robust sum of $4.875 billion–almost close to that original demand for $5b, a magic number of sorts, that could be itself arrived at by allocating emergency funds from the Department of Defense–or the declaration of a national emergency as if this were an actual crisis. (The addition of $3.6 billion from other military construction projects among the $6.1 billion from the Defense Department budget that he argued wasn’t going to be used for anything “too important”–and was officially discretionary, if earmarked for construction, repairs, and counter-narcotics programs–rationalized as the mega-project would block “illegal” drugs.) The result would double the allocated funds–and create a mega-project worthy of the name–a project, of course, for which no clear shared map still exists, although many have been offered. But a mega-project of this size perhaps, paradoxically, itself resists mapping.
Racing to ensure the possibility of declaring the national emergency to get his way on Thursday, the suggestion on television that Gov. Gavin Newsom could curtail a project of high speed rail in the state just the day previous came with a search to secure more than the $1.375b in border fencing as a victory, or exit the terms of the bill he had to sign to avoid extending a government shutdown, as he met contractors to discuss the design of the wall, and sums of money able to be tapped after he declared a national emergency, and use it as a basis to claim he remained an outsider, still not bound by Congress, still not polluted by deals cut in Washington, even after he’d occupied the Oval Office for over two years–even if he didn’t really have a believable map of how to build it? Or did the Commander-in-Chief, feeling cornered by Congress, see Newsom’s seeming concession as the chance to secure billions by budgetary re-allocation? The high-speed rail system was given the fearsome price-tag of $10b; repossessing $3.5 billion of funds from a cancelled project raised dizzying possibility of an under-the-table reallocation of federal funds no one knew were there.
If Trump delights in playing fast and free with numbers that seem designed to disorient his audience, the costs of a border “wall”–whatever it might look like–remain far higher than we can calculate or imagine. Trump boasts he can build the “wall” for but $12b, yet that is a figure at which most scoff. Internal reports from the Office of Homeland Security place the figure at more like over $21.6 billion over three years, The most recent plan to secure another $6.5b by some sort of emergency funding seemed less of a reaction to stinginess than a charade of creative accounting,–a dizzying juggling of vast amounts of money that become meaningless before his own hyperbolic claims of “an invasion of our country,”–the new mantra used to justify its construction–“with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs.” Pulling out all the stops in his request for emergency funding and indulging his worst impulses, the moneys slated for California’s train suddenly seemed an attractive target for federal re-appropriation. High-speed rail seemed a project whose funds were easy to hijack and redirect to the border barrier Trump was scrambling with budget analysts and contractors to fund.
1. Both mega-projects have been sold as worth their cost, and both–though one falsely–as “paying for themselves.” The border “wall” is so massive it has no clear price–conservatively, $70b (and an extra $150 million a year to maintain it), or anywhere from $27b to $40b, while Trump asserts only $12b. Where the funds will come from is anyone’s guess, as the promise is something of a conceit, and as Trump never produced a clear schema of costs, the whole question has been maddeningly and dizzyingly opaque. The train may cost as much–although the benefits are more tangible–though a possible $100 billion price-tag has raised many eyebrows. But the high-speed rail was long billed as a basis for modernization, which the border wall can hardly be claimed to be.
The funding for High-Speed Rail was planned to be funded largely by the cap-and-trade program designed to lower California’s carbon emissions. Cap-and- trade was written off, at first, but has caught on as a practice of resistance in the Trump era–although it is rejected by the White House. The High Speed Rail project would stands as an alternative infrastructure to fight climate change. This made it all the easier to the seen as a sacrifice of federal funds, at a time when any budgetary expenditures were being scrutinized for potential pillaging. The vertiginous bombast that Trump summoned to seek to justify the declaration of a national emergency–the image of an invasion is pretty powerful, and for some hard to resist, and the threshold of evidence has been substantially lowered–allowed for the by now all too familiar juxtaposition of scale, numbers, and proportions that seemed guaranteed to confuse his audiences so that they got behind his argument. The very breadth of the high-speed rail project seemed a perfect target–its many maps suggesting a future that gave Trump special pleasure to deflate, no doubt, in ways that one can’t see as tied to a perverse pleasure in seeing infrastructural projects crumble into thin air.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.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.
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, a combination of fencing, barriers, and bollards, and the 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–
–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–
–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.
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.
–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.
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.
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.Continue reading