The Agenda

A Quick Reply to Megan McArdle on California HSR

I’m in complete agreement with Megan McArdle’s recent post on California HSR — except for one small parenthetical in her final paragraph:

As Reihan says, this is a national embarassment.  Not just because it’s hard to believe that voters would have passed this particular $80 billion rail initiative (this is about half of California’s annual budget–as if the United States had voted to adopt a $2 trillion highway bill).  But because this is no way to run a policy process.

Megan is just referring to the magnitude of the proposal. I just want to underline that I think a $2 trillion 10-year highway bill would make much more sense, as those funds could be devoted to a wide range of high-value projects, including, perhaps, innovative modular construction projects, anti-congestion efforts, and other initiatives that could lower the long-run cost of mobility. Spending $80 billion on California HSR is more like devoting $2 trillion to a “Supertrain,” as featured in the 1992 grunge-aesthetic film Singles, with much of the money devoted to providing really good snacks, coffee, and music to upper-middle-class people traveling between Park Slope and Wicker Park. 

That’s a cheap shot, I realize. But really, the whole “why can’t we do both?” idea must be met with a straightforward response: okay, maybe we should do both. What puzzles me is why we’d prioritize HSR rather than projects that would help the huge number of poor and working class people living in big cities get to their jobs a little bit faster and cheaper? Mobility constraints are a huge barrier to upward economic mobility. Money and time spent getting to and from work can’t be saved and invested. Let’s start with projects aimed at easing mobility constraints and use the money left over so that some smallish number of people won’t have to fly or drive between LAX and SFO.

One might object that, well, most of us crazy right-wingers don’t want to spend any money on non-automobile mobility options, so why not spend it on California HSR? I’d actually rather we spend money on nothing rather than spend money on something like California HSR “first,” just as I’d rather cities spend money on nothing rather than enormous white-elephant sports stadiums “first.” Build things we actually need consonant with the taxes people are willing to pay. If there’s money left over, I mean, I guess you can build large numbers of luxury skyboxes at my expense. But you certainly shouldn’t build luxury skyboxes while your city is plagued by crumbling infrastructure and “flash robs.”

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