Prisons or High Speed Rail?

One of my favorite virtual colleagues, Joseph Cordes, sent me a link from Marginal Revolution this morning about why Tyler Cowen is still skeptical of High Speed Rail.

The arguments surrounding High Speed Rail are well-worn ones, and certainly I’ve talked about them enough here. Either you think the projects are worth the money, or you don’t.

I don’t, personally. I would love to have a system of high speed trains. I hate airplanes, all the more with all the security nonsense. I hate cars, too. Don’t get me wrong. But when cities are laying off fire fighters and teachers because Americans refuse to pay an extra few pennies of petrol tax or modernise property taxes, I just don’t know where the money is going to come from.

I’ve heard all the arguments, and nobody has at any point said anything that didn’t strike me as the equivalent of “we’re going to borrow the money from rainbow-colored unicorns from outer space.” Here’s a sample:

—Private companies are going to do it (if they were, they would have done so some time ago. The first thing US rail companies did with deregulation was dump their intercity passenger rail. Am the only one who remembers that? It’s not like we didn’t have HSR lobbies before that would have advocated for the subsidies needed. Ray LaHood is no kid.)

—The Feds will appropriate funds for it now that the war is “over” (What funds? We’re at a point where even *I* am worried about deficits and I have never particularly worried about deficits even when others were screaming about them. But you need a way out of deficits and I am not seeing one.)

—We’ll get the money by closing tax loopholes. (How do you think those loopholes happened? By accident? Which politically disempowered group is going to sit still while we effectively raise their taxes?)

—We’ll get the money by making drivers pay the full cost of their choices. (Great in theory, but if I can’t get a higher gas tax how in the heck am I going to get a VMT fee or some other corrective tax on driving? )

—We’ll decrease spending on auto infrastructure in favor of HSR. I think this is the one that the smart HSR advocates actually believe. Certainly, transit spending has consumed a larger and larger portion of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). Everybody has their sites on federal money: people advocating for *walking* infrastructure think there should be Federal funding for it because I guess property owners are rather tired of paying for things that benefit them and the rest of us need to do it for them. How far do we think we can stretch traditional sources before we so dilute the fund that we get little out of it? At some point, HSR funds won’t be displacing highway spending; it will be displacing transit funds.

One of the comments over at MR has me wondering:

But one wonders – how much does America’s prison system cost? After all, European countries seem strangely unable to be as dedicated to locking away people at high expense. while seemingly being able to afford less than profitable HSR sytems.

link: Marginal Revolution: One reason why I’m still skeptical about high-speed rail

Yes, but in California’s budget crisis, prisons took their hit, too. And they will continue to take hits. We are are out of money, present and future, unless we do something different than we are on the revenue side.

The misperception out there is that governments waste money all the time on silly things like prisons. As a very sharp friend of mine pointed out: I’d rather have government spend money on HSR than defense spending. Sure, well, yeah, great. But we’re in a pickle there, too. Ending the war wasn’t just a moral and political imperative, it was also a financial imperative. We’re not in a position of shifting funds or even future revenue streams around. We’re in position where cutting back is the only way we’ll have any long-term budget stability whatsoever.

At some point, these kinds of arguments–that we can just forego prisons or wars in favor of HSR–hit the hard brick wall of our public financial crisis in the US. It’s not that we can easily trade funds back and forth: it’s that those funds, too, have dwindled. It’s like arguing over a bucket of water with a big leak in the bottom–when that water is all you’ve got to put out a forest fire.

I don’t like what I see, but I can’t help but see what I see.

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