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.
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