I have an intellectual crush on Ed Glaeser, and it’s not getting any relief as he looks at high-speed rail. Ed has more papers in the “papers I wish I had written” column than just about anybody else. Here is the line that I wish I could have printed on a button or stamped on my forehead:
This is the cruel arithmetic faced by people, like myself, who would love to be pro-rail.
Of course the comments are the usual, rehashed rail stuff about the environmental costs (read the piece; Glaeser hasn’t gotten there yet) and preaching about sprawl prevention (rail doesn’t prevent sprawl, land use controls do) etc etc etc. It’s not like we who have our doubts are mean and just ‘don’t understand’ our environmental crisis or who don’t see how nice Japan’s high-speed rail is or that it has turned a mighty profit. (If these systems are so great and it’s a no-brainer profit-maker, why aren’t the private companies lined up yet? Are these companies just bad at math? )
My problem is that I look at $10 billion floated in bonds for high speed rail in California just six months before $7 billion is cut from K-12 schools and $1 billion is cut from healthcare for impoverished children and I wonder if–even granted all the wonderful wonderful things HSR promises–yet another round of large-scale, mega-project infrastructure with no tax increases to pay for it is really worth what what we are, apparently, going to pull out of the pockets of other social programs in the name of a ‘balanced budget’ and ‘the environment’ and ‘sustainability.’
On the one hand, I’m told we as a society can’t afford anymore to invest in kids’ human capital or even, in the case of Medi-Cal, keep them alive. The state ‘can’t afford’ its premier higher education system anymore, even though those institutions contribute to economic growth. We must make “hard choices”–especially those of us in that bastion of overfunding known as education. On the other hand, we supposedly ‘can’t afford not to invest’ in a luxury train service because people like me can’t be taxed into staying out of cars and airplanes to pollute less (and raise tax revenues which can then retire HSR bonds if we really think the project matters that much.) Why are kids subject to hard choices but the rest of us aren’t?
Instead, I am supposed to believe that HSR is a vital social good. But then it’s not vital enough to pay for out of new assessments? People who advocate for rail are fond of pointing to the fact that the highway people got their interstate system. Yes, they did get their system for both good and ill, but their system was introduced with a set of new revenue sources: state and federal gas taxes. Instead, we seem to be planning to pay for future infrastructure with promises, legerdemain, and a willingness to put the most vulnerable on the chopping block. Some prices are too high. I’m sorry if that makes me mean or ignorant, but right now it’s just kind of making me sick.