“Shovel ready” was always a canard. It was more like “camera-ready” — and it was a cynical strategy that has gravely harmed the prospects for investment in critical physical assets.
Take high-speed rail. The president has used scarce stimulus funds not actually to complete a project, but to get the credit for starting a whole bunch of ‘em.
The 2009 ”recovery act” provided $8 billion for rail. But the White House (with help from Congress) split it across thirteen regional projects.
Realistically, finishing any one high-speed rail link would cost $20 billion, probably more. If the president really wanted to showcase this technology, then, he would have devoted all of the rail funds and more to one demonstration project — maybe a showcase link between New York and Chicago, or between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
And then, do it. Quietly build the darn thing and see if people use it and like it. If they do, they’ll quickly forget about cost overruns, delays, and whatever scandals inevitably accompanied it along the way — and other cities would demand their own links soon enough, too.
But the president chose to maximize photo ops, not public-investment utility. So in five years’ time, nobody will be enjoying high-speed rail; they’ll be wondering where their money went. And the next time a president comes along promising rail, they’ll sensibly demur, because they’ll be thinking, “Where is that rail that we already paid for?”
— Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.