Stimulus, Infrastructure, Or Boondoggle?

At PJ Media, Larry Elder asks a good question: “Trump’s ‘Infrastructure’ Plan Versus Obama’s ‘Stimulus’: What’s the Difference?” Larry, whom I admire greatly, thinks the answer is “not much.” I disagree: Obama’s faux stimulus consisted largely of support for state governments so they could keep union employees on the payroll. Very little of the “stimulus” involved construction projects. Trump, at least, is actually talking about building, repairing and maintaining infrastructure.

But that still leaves an important question: There undoubtedly are significant infrastructure needs, and investments that should be made. On the other hand, many projects are uneconomic boondoggles. Can the Trump administration tell the difference?

We have a test case in my home state of Minnesota. The state’s liberals are addicted to light rail transit, which they see as a symbol of a sophisticated metropolitan area. Unfortunately, light rail is an obsolete technology that, in practice, fails every test. So far, the Twin Cities have two light rail lines. As explained in this report, the Twin Cities trains carry hardly any passengers, and actually make traffic congestion worse, not better, despite their extraordinary cost.

For years, the Metropolitan Council–an unelected body that is the most powerful regional agency in the U.S.–has been pushing for construction of a third line, called Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT). This line will not be any more successful than its predecessors. It will cost around $2 billion and will experience operating losses that will require endless subsidies, while contributing virtually nothing to the Twin Cities’ transportation system.

That being the case, why is it even being considered? For one reason only: the federal government has, for years, been talking about contributing more than $900 million to the project. Nine hundred million! How can we turn down that “free” money? Of course, that accounts for less than half of the project’s cost, and the feds will do nothing to cover operating losses and maintenance costs. Nevertheless, when $2 billion in checks may be written, there is plenty of political support for the project.

Happily, there is also plenty of opposition. The rail line, if built, will connect Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, a southwestern suburb, adjoining a freight line and passing through prosperous neighborhoods of Minneapolis and suburbs like St. Louis Park.

The Met Council is eager to begin construction on the project so as to make it a fait accompli. In the immediate future, it intends to cross the Rubicon by cutting down thousands of trees along the corridor where the hypothetical line may be built. The Star Tribune reports:

Later this month, builders will begin cutting down more than a thousand trees to make way for the $2 billion Southwest Light Rail Transit project, which will connect Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. The removal of trees and thicket on the trail — long the nexus of the controversy surrounding the Southwest rail project — would be a tangible sign that construction of the largest public works project in Minnesota history is moving forward.
The Kenilworth corridor, which divides Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, is the most intensely used trail in Minneapolis’ park system given its compact size, with some 746,000 annual visits, according to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. …

In the coming weeks, the Kenilworth trail will be closed for three years to make way for Southwest rail construction. By 2023, some 220 light-rail trains will zip along the corridor and through a tunnel there every day, hemmed in by freight rail service and restored bike and pedestrian trails.

Those who live near the path of the proposed train line are up in arms about the impending deforestation. You can see why; this is what the area looks like:

If you know anything about Minneapolis politics, it won’t surprise you that most of those who are protesting the SWLRT line are Democrats. This poses a problem for Minnesota’s newly-elected, but already embattled, Governor Tim Walz. Walz, under intense pressure over his unpopular proposal for a 70% increase to the state’s gas tax, doesn’t need to be defending his DFL flank on behalf of a white elephant construction project. On the other hand, there are those $2 billion in checks to be written…

The Metropolitan Council intends to begin cutting down trees on Monday. So far, nothing has stood in its way. In a humorous sidelight, a few weeks ago the Council preemptively destroyed the habitat of a hive of protected “rusty patch bumble bees” in order to eliminate spring hatching of the bees. They simply mowed over the hive, notwithstanding that the Governor had already issued an order protecting the rusty patch bumble bee. So much for liberals as protectors of the environment!

Maybe Governor Walz will order his newly-appointed Metropolitan Council members to stand down until federal funding is actually assured. In any event, the eventual fate of the project will depend on whether the Trump administration understands that SWLRT is a boondoggle, not a sound infrastructure project. If federal funding goes away, the project will be dead. I suspect that there are many other projects around the country whose fate depends on whether Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and her staff know a boondoggle when they see one.

I don’t know whether Elaine Chao reads Power Line, but I hope so.