04 November 2010

Political Train Derailments

One of the prized features of the Obama Administration and subsequent Stimulus spending was to advance public transportation solutions to improve America’s infrastructure, create “green” jobs and provide many government jobs for the foreseeable future. But the conservative wave that has swept across America threatens to derail the train set.

Prior to the elections, Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) killed the nation’s most expensive public-works programs, a proposed new rail tunnel between New Jersey and midtown Manhattan which would have doubled commuter rail service.  Gov. Christie refused to hand over a blank check to the “Access to the Regions Core” project as New Jersey’s costs had risen to $3.5 billion of the $9 billion project and more cost overruns were likely. The new Hudson tunnel was $2.3 billion more than forecast and funding from New York entities had not been secured. Christie seems to have learned from Boston’s Big Dig which was originally slated to cost $2.8 billion in 1982 but eventually cost $22 billion by the time it was completed in 2007.

The day after Governor-elect John Kaisich (R-OH) was elected, he announced that passenger rail was not in Ohio’s future.  During the gubernatorial campaign, Kaisich scoffed at how a train running at 39 miles an hour could solve Ohio’s economic woes Current Governor Ted Strickland (D-OH) had scored $400 million to study converting current freight rails into a passenger service between the 3C’s, Cincinnati-Columbus-Cleveland. The remaining $375 million may go to another train friendly state.

Governor-elect Scott Walker (R-WI) kept a campaign pledge to kill a proposed high speed train service for Madison and Milwaukee.  The Stimulus was slated to pay the entire $810 million for this 90 mile project.  But it would only create 55 permanent jobs and is projected to cost the state $10 million a year for very light projected usage. Just before the election, Badger State officials quietly committed Wisconsin to the deal.  But the Wisconsin State Department of Transportation now has advised all contractors to stop working on the Cheesehead choo-choo.

The SunRail and high speed train projects in central Florida are facing trouble on several fronts.  Railroad proponents have indicated that completing the Tampa to Orlando rail line by 2013 is a priority for the Obama Administration to justify a $2 billion stimulus earmark and smart transportation efforts.  But voters in Tampa and Polk County solidly rejected a $0.01 sales tax increases to pay for the train service.  Governor-elect Rick Scott (R-FL) is skeptical about the projects, especially if the projects cost Florida any money.  Currently the state would have to shoulder 20% of the commuter rail costs and half of the high speed rail costs.

While these thrifty Republican governors will certainly be derided by liberals as being short sighted transportation troglodytes.  A serious cost benefit analysis needs to be made without idealist rose colored glasses.  Unlike in Europe, America's population is not densely located in urban clusters, especially outside of the US Northeast. Aside from train enthusiasts, it is unlikely that most travelers would choose riding the rails for transcontinental transit in America.  Even with the infrastructure expenditures, states would be responsible for hefty subsidies for sparse ridership. And naturally all of the workers on the rail lines would be unionized and might even be made government workers.

There are some instances where commuter rail service makes sense, like in Chicagoland, Philadelphia, New York-New Jersey and Washington, DC.  Trying to force rail service between Madison and Milwaukee, Cleveland to Cincinnati or Tampa to Orlando seem like expensive boondoggles that may not be as wasteful as the Detroit monorail but does not promise to be supported by consumers.

As the realities of spending our grandchildens’ inheritance in Porkulus and ultimately inflationary QE2 monetary policy, governmental officials need to make hard choices.  But until I hear convincing arguments to the contrary, derailing these boondoggles seems like an easy decision.

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