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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.