What California’s High-Speed Rail Debacle Tells Us About Progressivism

California’s high-speed rail (HSR) project is quickly becoming the poster child of how not to do public infrastructure: Costs have skyrocketed by more than half the original estimates, the project is going to lose money even though the authorizing language approved at the ballot box required it to (at a minimum) cover operating costs, and the first leg of the line makes it a literal “train to nowhere.” And the Obama Administration is all for it.

Caliifornia’s rail debacle (and more) is chronicled in a short pithy report by C. Kenneth Orski in his most recent Innovation Briefs newsletter (Vol. 22, No. 16, May 31, 2011). What I found most intriguing, however, were the following two paragraphs:

“At the urging of the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the rail authority asked the U.S. DOT for more flexibility about where and when to build the initial “operable” segment. The LAO went as far as recommending that “If the state can’t win a waiver from the federal government to loosen the rules and the timing for using high-speed rail grants, it should consider abandoning the project.” Not only would the Central Valley segment, by itself, have insufficient ridership and revenues to stand on its own, the Legislative Analyst wrote, but “the assumption that construction of the Central Valley segment could move quickly because of a lack of public opposition has already proved to be unfounded.” The LAO suggested several alternative segments that could be more financially viable and economically beneficial than the Central Valley segment. They included Los Angels-Anaheim, San Francisco-San Jose and San Jose-Merced.

“But in a remarkable exercise of inflexibility and delusion, the U.S. Department of Transportation turned a deaf ear to the request. “Once major construction is underway…the private sector will have compelling reasons to invest in further construction,” the DOT letter stated in an assertion totally unsupported by any evidence.”

What may be most intriguing from a political economy perspective is that high-speed rail is the quientessential progressive public policy project, but paradoxically, it exists solely because of a “vision” and funding provided by the central national government. One of the most important ideas underlying progressive politics is that of an efficient, expert driven, administratively powerful, and unified government, eschews political approaches to government programs in favor of evidence-based (or “scientific”) public policy goals. Of course, if you recall from the 2008 election, President Obama is a self-described progressive politician and even called for “evidence-based” public policy on the campaign trail.

California’s high-speed rail project fails virtually every test of progressive politics yet it remains a signature program of a self-styled progressive president:

  • HSR’s support is based on political considerations (vision), not the practical provision of a true public service;
  • HSR’s skyrocketing costs show that it cannot be implemented through an administratively efficient process (federal funding despite widespread skepticism over implementation and construction costs);
  • National policy is overriding more prudent and efficient local decisionmaking (route alignment);
  • The government investment in the project is faith-based rather than evidence-based (private companies will recognize its value in the long-run);
  • Leadership on the project is driven by a politician known for his ability to be political, not an experienced, policy expert or polished administrative leader.

At the end of the day, HSR may prove to be President Obama’s philosophical undoing. By pushing this project, he is demonstrating that “progressive” politics isn’t very progressive. Rather, it’s just rebranding the same old, same old.