Californians might be forgiven for being puzzled about the merits of their state’s ambitious high-speed rail program. The sprawling, multibillion-dollar project has been portrayed as a boondoggle that will never be completed, and as a much needed infrastructure initiative that will lead a statewide economic resurgence—sometimes almost simultaneously.
Within the last few weeks, for instance, the San Jose Mercury News has reported that while “much of the squabbling over California’s high-speed rail project has focused on its huge construction price tag, the cost to taxpayers just to plan the bullet train is also soaring”—by some $97 million.
The same day, the newspaper bashed the bullet train in a fierce editorial, which insisted that Gov. Jerry Brown’s legacy will be a wasteful, high-speed rail to nowhere. “We thought high-speed rail looked like a reasonable deal at its original price, around $69 billion,” the paper wrote. “But things got out of control—and it’s taxpayers who’ll find themselves tied to the tracks down the line. We think the cost ultimately will double.”
But this harsh assessment came just six days after the Mercury News website posted an Associated Press story that explains why the Government Accountability Office is giving “generally good grades” to the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s business plan to build the bullet train. And on April 12, the Merc and other major California media noted that the low bid in a preliminary ranking of competitors hoping to build the first segment of the rail system came in at just below $1 billion—hundreds of millions of dollars less than earlier estimates.
I do not mean to single out the Mercury News for criticism, or even, really, to criticize the paper at all. The shape-shifting, $69 billion California bullet train project—which if built will initially connect Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area, eventually expanding to Sacramento and San Diego—is a daunting target for journalistic inquiry. Each of the project’s financial, routing, contracting, environmental, and legal controversies is complex enough to tie down a team of reporters for months. Add in the rail system’s geographic scope, and the varying interests of different parts of the state in different aspects of the project, and you have a nightmarish octopus of a story to cover in a time of newsroom austerity.
In 2011, California news organizations responded creatively to the bullet train challenge, forming a consortium to cover the massive project, with the Center for Investigative Reporting’s award-winning California Watch in the lead. Mark Katches, the center’s editorial director, says the collaboration began in mid-2011, at the suggestion of Betsy Lumbye, then executive editor of the The Fresno Bee. Given the project’s huge financial and geographical scope, and because the political fight to determine whether the legislature would fund the train was hard fought and high-profile, the idea was “a natural,” Katches says.
The journalistic collaboration eventually grew to 12 organizations, including The Fresno Bee, The Bakersfield Californian, the Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Sacramento Bee, The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, U-T San Diego, KQED, the Merced Sun-Star, the San Luis Obispo Tribune, and The Modesto Bee. This combine produced a solid and voluminous series of reports as supporters and opponents of fought an intense political battle over the life of the project. News organizations “didn’t have to pay to get in,” Katches said. “They just had to share their work.”
To produce one notable example of that work, Tim Sheehan, a business reporter for The Fresno Bee, went to Spain for eight days, where he researched a package on that country’s 20-year-old high-speed rail system, which has many parallels with the California project. The trip cost about $4,000, an amount that none of the member organizations would have paid on its own for a story from Spain. But at less than $400 apiece, members were happy to contribute.
Sheehan’s main article, “Spain’s high-speed rail system offers lessons for California,” was published in January 2012, and it is both comprehensive and well-crafted, presenting positive and negative aspects of the Spanish rail effort in a package that includes appropriate dashes of Iberian color, as well as video and graphics produced by California Watch. And the Spanish package is no anomaly. It just one of dozens of deep, enterprising bullet train pieces gathered on the California Watch site.