Light Rail To Nowhere

There’s a nifty little article at the WaPo disputing the notion that America’s infrastructure is falling apart. Sample quote, on the ‘D’ the ASCE gives our roads:

while that D from the American Society of Civil Engineers is undoubtedly sincere, the organization has a vested interest in greater infrastructure spending, which means more work for engineers. The engineers’ lobby has given America’s infrastructure a D in every one of its report cards going back to 1998, except for 2001, when the mark was D-plus.

Lane, it should be noted, is not disputing the notion that our infrastructure needs maintenance and support. He’s disputing the claim that the country is literally falling apart. He also disputes the idea that infrastructure is necessarily a great economic stimulus:

Top-notch though it is, the U.S. infrastructure could use an upgrade; by their very nature, roads, bridges and the rest require constant maintenance. The effort could boost both current employment and the economy’s capacity to grow in the future.

But it’s not just a matter of turning on the money tap and letting it flow. Though roads, rails and levees represent huge, upfront capital expenditures, the long-term benefits are often difficult to calculate objectively. The whole business is fraught with uncertainty, trade-offs and pork-barrel politics.

Nor are the economics of public works simple. After its economic bubble burst, Japan tried to restart growth with more than $6 trillion in infrastructure spending between 1991 and 2008. It ended up with little to show for it but a swollen national debt and lots of bridges to nowhere.

Infrastructure spending has a horrific tendency to ignore potholes and failing bridges in favor of massive Davis-Bacon-inflated boondoggles. Just to pick one example:

Faster than a speeding bullet train, the cost of the state’s massive high-speed rail project has zoomed to nearly $100 billion — triple the estimate given to voters and more than enough to run the entire state government for a year.

What’s more, bullet trains won’t be up and running until at least 2033, much later than the original estimate of 2020, although that depends on the state finding the remaining 90 percent of the funds needed to complete the plan.

The new figures come from a final business plan to be unveiled by the California High-Speed Rail Authority on Tuesday, though some of the details were leaked to the media, including this newspaper, on Monday. Officials at the rail authority did not respond to repeated requests for comment Monday.

That estimate of $33.6 billion was made three years ago. If the cost has tripled in three years, you can only imagine what might happen in the next 22.

Of course, to the Democrats, the inflated costs are a good thing — more spending is more stimulus! It’s now three times as stimulusy as it was was just three years ago! But to the rest of us, this calls for a fork to be stuck into the project. And for some serious reconsideration of just what the hell we’re doing with all this infrastructure money.

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  1. Seattle Outcast

    Seattle is a great example of “roads going to shit fast, but we’ve got light rail”

    Between the deathtrap tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct ($4.25 billion before mandatory cost over-runs), the light rail expansion (nobody uses it), and begging for for more money to keep the buses running, they’ve managed to let the roads go to hell and are getting hammered to replace the aging ferry fleet.

    Of course, the ferry fleet, like the bus service, was heavily subsidized from transportation taxes collected for other purposes, but people actually use the ferry boats to capacity (the buses, not so much).

    Anyway, local anti-tax initiatives put an end to much automatic tax increases and is now aiming at ending still more funneling of item-specific taxes to the general fund. Might finally put an end to the debacle of light rail to no place in particular, but I doubt it.

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  2. Seattle Outcast

    Most likely.

    Washington State spends too much on dubious programs, and being forced to work with less money is the only way to effect change in Olympia. If they’d only make cuts at the iffy stuff rather than blackmailing the state with cuts to critical programs out of spite.

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  3. Miguelito

    We had presentations from these high speed rail jack asses at my planning group meeting a few times.

    I was sorta shocked to hear even the uber liberal board members could see the reality of the situation. They all knew that the cost was going to skyrocket. They all knew that if we lived to see it run down here to San Diego, the cost would (at best) perhaps match air fare. There really is NO upside to the whole thing.

    I could almost see it if it actually ran more places people wanted to go (no trains from the coast to places like Las Vegas) and weren’t going to cost insane amounts to build. But the reality is, it will always cost far to much to ever make back the initial investment in any sane time line.

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