Railroads in the West: Now and then

Merced Sun-Star
High-speed rail: Ag worries over project voiced
Elected officials and growers discuss effects on farmland… AMEERA BUTT
Farmers in Merced County voiced their concerns about the impact of high-speed rail on ag land at a joint hearing organized by state senators Friday afternoon.
Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, and Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, who leads the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, held a joint hearing, "From Food to Rail: High-Speed Rail Impacts on Agriculture" on Friday.
Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, and Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, also attended.
The event weighed the effects on ag land by the proposed railway, intended to carry passengers between San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles by way of the San Joaquin Valley at speeds of up to 220 mph.
Cannella said the event provided a chance for politicians to hear from the agricultural community, a major part of California's economy. It generates more than $30 billion a year in revenue.
Jeff Marchini, president of the Merced County Farm Bureau, said farmers and ranchers have been trying for two years to educate high-speed rail officials about agricultural issues.
"I made it a priority to be at the table with high-speed rail authorities," he said. But the Le Grand almond grower said the authority has rarely answered any of his questions.
"They continue to say all questions will be answered in the draft environmental report," he said.
Marchini demanded the authority provide detailed data about the routes and their effects and give more time for the project's draft environmental impact report -- 90 days instead of 45 days.
"It will give the public additional time to review these documents and ensure the route options aren't detrimental to ag land," Marchini explained.
Kole Upton, another farmer who spoke during the meeting, said he agreed the time frame for the draft EIR should be extended. Upton grows pistachios and almonds in southern Merced County.
The draft EIR would be available in August, Roelof van Ark, chief executive officer of the rail authority, said. The final EIR will be finished once all the comments are examined and incorporated and will be available at the beginning of 2012.
'Unfortunate' impacts
Authority officials say high-speed rail's cost, according to its December 2009 business plan, is $42.6 billion. An updated version of that business plan will be available in October.
Van Ark said a project of that magnitude is a huge task.
"We have focused on the ag and the ag community, and maybe not enough," he said, adding the authority has taken steps to reduce the effects on agriculture.
"Unfortunately, there will always be impacts," van Ark said.
For the Merced-to-Fresno section, he said, about 4,000 acres of ag land would be affected. "There are statistics of ag land over time. Four thousand over the period of five years," he explained.
He said the authority has had 14 agriculture-specific meetings for the Merced-to-Fresno line since December 2009.
DeSaulnier said he wanted to know how many meetings were public and who conducted them.
Other officials, including Cannella, were still concerned about the impact on farmland. For example, he wanted to know what would happen if the rail line bisected a dairy. Van Ark said the authority would work closely with the contractors on the project.
A conflicted position
Merced County Board of Supervisors Chairman John Pedrozo said he had taken a lot of heat for supporting high-speed rail, but "I feel that productive ag and high-speed rail can exist."
He said he believes that the rail line would have less impact on farmland because they use existing transportation corridors.
Pedrozo said the community badly needs the jobs that the project will produce. "I am tired of watching our local economy get worse. We need that infusion that high-speed rail will bring."
He said one of the issues that needs to be discussed is crop loss. One solution could be to consult an ag expert from another country where high-speed rail exists.
"We want answers sooner rather than later. We are not against progress or high-speed rail. I do believe (in) our elected officials to find an avenue of support and unity in our state and protect ... ag land," said Marchini.

The Transcontinental Travesty
What Gilded Age railroad-building frenzy reveals about American greed.
By Donald Worster
The corporate raider Gordon Gekko, in the 1987 film Wall Street, distilled the essential philosophy of the Reagan era, when we were supposed to get back to basic principles: "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works."
Although almost every ethical philosopher or religious leader of the past came out against greed as an emotion that distorts judgment and corrupts society, the Gekko-Reagan creed has usually been an easy sell in America. Running against that tradition, Richard White, in his new book Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, doggedly persists in challenging the notion of greed as either rational or virtuous. He has a big job on his hands. No matter how many dot-com crashes or overleveraged credit debacles we go through, the core faith in greed as the engine of American greatness seems all but unshakable.
One legendary moment of greatness was the completion of the first transcontinental. There is a legend-making photo taken at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 1869, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific joined tracks and reunited a war-divided people. After that came the Northern Pacific; the Great Northern; the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe;* and other lines that brought a transportation revolution to the West. White debunks the legend, arguing that the achievement was shoddy and chaotic and benefited the nation verylittle. The money that built those lines did not come from the railroad men themselves— Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Henry Villard, James J. Hill, and Thomas Scott.
Instead, they persuaded Congress to lay out enormous subsidies. The Union Pacific alone raked in $43 million in interest subsidies on federal loans, and railroads east and west of the Mississippi River received more than 131 million acres in free land. White explains that largesse as a result of political corruption. But then why did so many investors, including shrewd Germans and Brits, throw money into these enterprises as well? Not until the 20th century would there be enough white settlement and shipping traffic in the West to justify such investments. No rational need existed for decades, yet a railroad-building frenzy went on and on. The builders made a lot of money for themselves, but why did so many people give them so much capital?
Other government subsidies came in the form of stifling, with armed force, any resistance from Indians or any move on the part of immigrant laborers to try to make the railroads serve their needs. White describes in brilliant detail the infamous Pullman strike of 1893, when the government blatantly took the side of the corporations. "By and large, the western railroads remained what they had been before the strike—bloated, ill managed, heavily indebted, and corrupt. … Many were now wards of the federal courts, and all of them depended on the might of the federal government to control their own workers."
The dean of business historians Alfred Chandler Jr., in The Visible Hand (1977), described the 19th-century railroad corporation as the harbinger of order, rationality, and efficient organization. White scoffs at such an image. These corporations were made up of "divided, quarrelsome, petulant, arrogant, and often astonishingly inept men." And instead of the conventional leftist picture of a ruthless, soulless, but all-powerful business that crushed its opponents, the infamous Octopus of novelist Frank Norris, he finds "a group of fat men in an Octopus suit." They were morally challenged men, dripping with hypocrisy, mean-spirited, and grasping.
But White, who is a master of invective, describes them also as stupid and incompetent. Their only claim to genius was their ability "to find occasions for profit in their own ineptitude." Leland Stanford, for example, was well-known to his companions as dim-witted, careless, selfish, lazy, and yet filled with "immense self-regard." That tone of criticism appears all through the era. The Massachusetts railroad executive Charles Francis Adams, dismissed his fellow businessmen as creatures of "low instincts, … essentially unattractive and uninteresting." This is essentially White's view also, and he finds their success more than reprehensible; that such reptilian types ever gained so much power and wealth is bewildering. That their descendants still command so much authority is beyond understanding.
Richard White is a Thorstein Veblen for our times. Veblen (1857-1929) was an academic economist too radical for his own day. He and White share contempt for the business community; it was Veblen who invented such phrases as "conspicuous consumption" and "businesslike mismanagement." There are differences: White is a more engaging writer than Veblen, less given to windy circumlocutions, and he grounds his charges in deep and thorough research. Dripping with venom, this book is nonetheless a model of the historian's use of primary sources, narrative skill, and insightful reinterpretation of the Gilded Age. It is easily the best business history I have read, and it carries a weight of argument and evidence that cannot be denied. Another difference is that Veblen was dismissed by Stanford University for his "immorality" and unpopular views, while White is one of that university's most honored professors.
Unlike Veblen, White strongly identifies with the Indians who were dispossessed in part by the railroads and with the railroad workers who did the dirty and dangerous jobs for low pay and little freedom. White is emphatically on the side of those he calls the "anti-monopolists," contesting corporate authority, though he admits that most of them were racists who blamed immigrant Chinese workers for their precarious economic situation as much or more than they blamed the bosses. A society based on class and ethnic equality is closer to White's ideal than to Veblen's, who in turning away from the underdogs of society threw in with the technocrats, trained in rational analysis and management of modern technology and enterprise. In his book The Engineers and the Price System (1921),
Veblen called for a "soviet of technicians" to run the railroads and factories of industrial America. That's not White's solution, but then what is his alternative to a society run by capitalists? What other choices did Americans have in the past or now?
Whom should they trust?
The story of the transcontinentals, White writes, "is more than just a phase, the unruly youth of corporate capitalism." It represents the beginning of "a deeper mystery of modernity: how so many powerful and influential people are so ignorant and do so many things so badly and how the world still goes on." Why do the "unfit" seem always to triumph? I don't find his answer very clear or satisfactory. Leland Stanford and his fellow railroad men did not make America; it was America that made them, and it was foreign as much as domestic investors who gave them money. Voters and investors, workers and capitalists, all wanted to see the West "civilized" as quickly as possible. They dreamed of human empire over nature, and in that dreaming they didn't bother about balancing costs and benefits. The conquest was worth whatever it cost, in lost economic opportunity, in injustice, and in environmental destruction.
Call it greed if you like, but often it was not personal greed so much as it was desire to see whatever was wild and nonhuman brought under control. After the railroads came massive water-engineering projects (White does not discuss the role of the railroads in promoting that boondoggle that went on through the New Deal). Those likewise dramatically altered the ecology of the West, and they made no more economic sense than the railroads did. The water projects were easily sold to a public that wanted to see the world under "civilized" control. Until we confront more directly that rage for domination, we will never understand how men like the robber barons ever got into power. Or why they have left so many descendants today.
White ends his book with this judgment: "The issue is not whether railroads should have been built. The issue is whether they should have been built when and where they were built. And to these questions the answer seems no." But would a delay of a few decades have really mattered? Would it have brought a different group of people into power? Would the goal of civilizing the West have been more humane, environmentally restrained, or economically sensible? Perhaps. This book convinces me that the railroads helped create both "dumb growth and environmental catastrophe." A greater capacity for delay and restraint might have moderated both outcomes. But still we are left with the conundrum of modernity: Who is both smart and decent enough to be in charge of the enormous powers we have unleashed on the earth? I don't have much confidence in businessmen, but neither do I have confidence in engineers, workers, or college professors. Least of all do I have confidence in the state when it begins to subsidize and promote whatever entrepreneurs want to do.