Keeping up with the bullet train

An immensely ambitious project requires hugely creative coverage. California had it, for a while. Time to try again?

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.

In the summer of 2012, though, when the California legislature narrowly approved $7.9 billion in state and federal funds for the first segment of the rail system, the bullet train lost its political and journalistic pizazz. It had been the center of a passionate debate, with supporters claiming it would pay for itself and transform California, and opponents, including several state financial officials, contending the project’s cost and revenue projections were absurdly upside-down. The effort to kill high-speed rail—an effort pushed by property owners in the Central Valley and the wealthy suburbs between San Jose and San Francisco—no longer appeared likely to succeed, and the high-speed-rail media collaboration just plain petered out. No stories appear to have been added to the California Watch high-speed rail page between July 2012 and early April.

Katches, who acknowledges that news organizations got distracted by other topics after the legislature funded the bullet train, thinks there could be a news “moment” when events trigger a rekindling of interest in collaborative high-speed rail coverage. But, he admits, “It may not happen again.”

And in a sense, there is nothing to bemoan about the waning of the bullet-train collaboration, a successful media innovation that produced a year of quality enterprise coverage about the bullet-train debate. The question is: What will succeed that effort?

The California bullet train is not just another construction project; it is likely the most significant American infrastructure initiative since the Interstate Highway System. Even in a state of outsized governmental spending, $69 billion is real money, and unless one of several pending lawsuits derails the project, which is unlikely, the California High-speed Rail Authority will be dispensing those billions for a long time. If the schedule in the authority’s revised 2012 business plan is met, no one will be riding the bullet train all the way from LA to the Bay Area until 2029. In-depth watchdog coverage of the project will be as necessary five and 10 years from now as it was during the politically contentious and journalistically exciting period leading up to the funding of its initial 130-mile segment in California’s Central Valley.

A first step toward maintaining public understanding of the California high-speed rail project? Make the quality reportage that has already been published more accessible.

California Watch has indeed put together an excellent compendium of the high-speed rail coverage it helped coordinate. Unfortunately, a Google search for “California high-speed rail” places that compendium on the sixth page of returns, where almost no one will see it. High-speed rail topic pages for other news organizations are less useful and organized than California Watch’s, and they also seem to play poorly with the Google search algorithm. A little search-engine-optimization work could go a long way toward helping readers find those collections of quality coverage, so they can get up to speed quickly on the bullet train when events bring it back into the headlines, as they almost inevitably will.

California’s high-speed rail project does face legal challenges, but few impartial observers think it likely that any court will permanently halt a project that voters and the legislature have blessed. If the bullet train does proceed to construction, California media—alone or in partnership—might consider spurring public interest by changing the context of their coverage. To date, much of that coverage has focused on whether the rail system could or should be built. Perhaps now is the time to begin looking at who will benefit as the system is built out.

A recent Atlantic Cities article by Eric Jaffe suggests one direction of inquiry. The article looks at UCLA research on Chinese rail projects that indicates second-tier California cities like Bakersfield could reap huge economic benefits from a bullet train. “The researchers found evidence that housing prices are appreciating in the secondary cities connected to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou by the bullet systems,” Jaffe wrote. One of the co-authors of the research paper even joked about buying property in Bakersfield because, when it comes to the California bullet train, “there are serious real estate implications.”

So far, news coverage of the California high-speed rail project has largely ignored these implications. Making a profit off development driven by grandiose infrastructure initiatives is an endeavor as Californian—and as fascinating—as the movie Chinatown. Efforts to explain who will benefit, across the state, on the economic benefits that will inevitably flow from completion of the train could constitute an organizing principle for coverage that brings clarity to a project that has, despite hard work by many talented journalists, remained a contradictory mystery for many news consumers.

Follow us @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team on press coverage of politics and policy.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

John Mecklin is the California and Nevada correspondent for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. He is the deputy editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Follow him on Twitter @meckdevil. Tags: , , ,