Runaway Train?

Robert Moses, the titanic “power broker” who is responsible for much that is wrong (and some that is right) in the planning of modern New York, had an infamous dictum: once you’ve turned the first shovelful of dirt, they’ll never make you stop building.

Big infrastructure projects might be killed on the drawing board, but once under construction they will almost never be canceled, even by those who bitterly oppose them. No matter how high the cost overruns are or how disastrous the engineering mishaps may be (think the Big Dig), no elected official wants to abandon a half-built expressway, leaving a rusting blot on the landscape which screams testimony to the incompetence of government.

Moreover, thanks to a quirk of our psychology we humans are very loath to walk away from “sunk costs” no matter how much it is in our interest to do so. Economists counsel that past effort should not dictate future action: what’s done is done and all that matters is whether future benefits outweigh future costs; no point throwing good money after bad.

But in practice we find it very difficult to admit we were wrong, and we often feel that sunk costs should be left on the balance sheet when it comes to the calculus that determines our future actions. Indeed, great difficulties, which may indicate we should abandon an undertaking, may ironically make us more, not less, inclined to stick to our questionable course.

Government officials are not necessarily more immune to this way of thinking than the rest of us. So once they have started spending money on a project they find it very hard to stop, no matter how disastrously it may be proceeding or how dim the benefits are starting to look.

This is why we should consider the administration’s high-speed rail (HSR) network carefully before construction commences, as I advocated here. The $12 billion that has already been allocated may just be the tip of the iceberg; once the dirt begins to fly, the public may be irreversibly committed to the capital and operational support of this program in perpetuity, no matter how much construction costs may spiral out of control or how disappointing ridership might be.

HSR backers may consider this a happy circumstance (and hey, I think when all is said and done, the Big Dig may be looked at as a great project). But at the very least, the HSR program deserves more scrutiny than it is receiving, buried as it is under weightier issues like health care and the state of the economy.

That’s why HSR requires a really rigorous cost-benefit analysis. Doing one on such a large and multifaceted project calls for a very big brain, and fortunately Edward Glaeser, over at The Times‘s Economix blog, is providing one. Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, is perhaps the closest the field of urbanism has to a rock star. He’s doing a multi-part series: here’s the link to his introductory piece, and here’s the link to his first substantial essay, on direct costs and benefits. I’ll let you know when the subsequent posts come up.

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  1. Gregg says:

    Regarding “No elected official wants to abandon a half-built expressway, leaving a rusting blot on the landscape which screams testimony to the incompetence of government…”–I guess you’ve never been to New Haven.

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  2. Grant says:

    @#1 – Or Baltimore. I-395 is pretty much an abandoned half-built expressway.

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  3. MM says:

    How about the hole they’re trying to fill in lower Manhattan with millions of sq ft of office space that nobody needs? Sorta like the old Trade Towers before the state filled them with their own.

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  4. Tim says:

    The first project that sprung to mind for me is the Superconducting Super Collider, which was shut down after 14 miles worth of tunnel, and $2 billion cost.

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  5. drew says:

    DC too, i live a few blocks from a pretty worthless stretch of 395. Thankfully the project was stopped short and didnt destroy any more of our city. Instead the money went to metro and our city is far better for it.

    Id rather have a half-built system of interstate HSR than a fully built out system of freeways running thorough the downtowns of our major cities. While costs of HSR are high, the positive externalities and development potential are high too. The marginal returns of HSR will be enormous as long as routes are well designed and can compete effectively with air travel and bus travel.

    See what has happened to the short haul air market in Europe after HSR became prevalent, and how much more successful their cities are than ours.

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  6. Russ says:

    The only section of the country that needs HSR is Washington to Boston. The Northeast Corridor is the only moneymaker for Amtrak, yet, the $ specifically limits $ going to the NEC, because some senators in Nebraska want their train too. Poor planning. (Possibly California could use HSR too)

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  7. Eric M. Jones says:

    In Mexico, I have been told, you don’t have to pay property tax on your house until construction is finished. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happens–houses never get finished.

    Surely the most amazing piece of unfinished public works is in the Megalith of Baalbek. See: http://tiny.cc/qDAbU
    This single stone weighed 1200 tons and is sitting abandoned. Nobody has a clue why, but the mechanics of moving such things was well within the capability of the Romans.

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  8. Lara says:

    Yes, those of us who would like to get from the Bay Area to LA without driving would love HSR in California!

    But I meant to point out that San Francisco is a case where for years there was a half-completed freeway downtown, along the Embarcadero (i.e., near Fishermen’s Wharf and other tourist goodies). It was taken down and the place looks a lot better. I don’t know what the cost-benefit analysis was, but it’s as if the idiots who approved the New Haven freeways had had the guts to stop and take down the structures they were putting in to divide the city into an unwalkable maze of depressed slums.

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