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July 14, 2014

"California High-Speed Rail—the Critics' Case"

James Fallows presents some of the criticism, but then he tries a neat rhetorical trick. Is there opposition to California's proposed high speed rail? Yes, but "Every big peacetime project that any democracy has ever undertaken has generated controversy." He gives as examples the Louisiana Purchase, the Alaska Purchase, the Golden Gate bridge, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Medicare ("now the sacred cow of American politics").  

Leave aside that both purchases involved just one-time expenditures and little bureaucracy to plan, execute, and administer, the Civil Rights Act didn't involve spending a lot of money of any kind, and that Medicare probably wouldn't have passed if it had been understood how hugely expensive it would become. (In 1965 a billon dollars was a really big deal rather than a rounding error in the budget of some obscure federal bureau.)

The main difference--the difference few Liberals understand--is that those examples are all about 50 years old or older. Government, particularly the federal government, doesn't work as well now. As Glenn Reynolds and his readers point out, two reasons are public employee unions and the environmental lobby. I'd add that now, as opposed to then, the federal government and many state governments are effectively broke.

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Jack PQ

I would add that in every case, the objective and the benefits were clear. There was room for debate, but there was at least a reasonable case to be made for each (and of course a very strong case for civil rights).
For high-speed rail, the case is... what? Under what scenario does it pay off? What assumptions are needed so it turns out to be a good investment? There's just no universe in which this is a good use of money and resources.

Patrick R. Sullivan

The only example that is similar is the Golden Gate bridge (i.e. infrastructure). That was financed by a bond issue which was retired within forty years strictly from the tolls from drivers crossing the bridge. Similar to how NYC got its subway system in 1904.

I'd like to see some high speed rail business plan proposal that doesn't require taxpayer subsidies.

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