Who is more powerful, the president of the United States or Michael P. Kenny of Sacramento?
Before you answer, consider this sequence of events: In April 2009, President Obama announced his “Vision for High Speed Rail” in America, backed by $8 billion in stimulus funds. The president pitched the plan in subsequent State of the Union addresses, signaling his commitment and that of his administration.
Fifty-five months later, on Nov. 25, 2013, Kenny, who is a state judge, ruled that California could not sell billions of dollars of bonds earmarked for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles portion of Obama’s plan. The state had no valid financial plan, and state law requires one, Kenny decided.
Now the entire project, backed not only by Obama but also by Gov. Jerry Brown is in limbo. Construction might begin someday. But whenever that is, it will be long after the Great Recession, which high-speed rail was supposed to help relieve.
It’s another reality check for Obama’s high-speed-rail “vision” – and for the popular idea that government-infrastructure projects can create jobs in the short run and enhance the economy’s capacity for growth in the long run.
More than a few economists – Obama’s former adviser Lawrence Summers prominent among them – argue plausibly that today’s low-interest-rate environment is an ideal time for government to borrow huge sums “to renew and build out our infrastructure,” as Summers wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed.
But what if it takes forever just to get construction started?
When a single state judge can thwart a multibillion-dollar project backed by the leader of the free world, what often slows government infrastructure plans is government itself – or, more precisely, the peculiar structure of American government.
The United States, with its semi-sovereign states, separation of powers and multiple “veto points,” especially litigation, was not designed for the swift approval and execution of big, national construction projects. Federally funded “internal improvements,” in fact, were the stuff of bitter legal and political conflict in the early republic.
Like the Republican governors of Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida who rejected Obama’s funding for high-speed rail in their states, antebellum foes of public works feared they would waste taxpayer money and aggrandize the federal government.
Overcoming opposition has often required war or other national emergency. In 1862, the Civil War helped President Abraham Lincoln make the case in Congress for a transcontinental railroad. At the time, Congress was conveniently devoid of Southern representatives, who might have demanded that the line run through their states. The Depression, two world wars and the Cold War cleared the way for everything from the Grand Coulee Dam to the interstate highway system.
Since the 1960s, however, infrastructure skeptics have continually gained power. The National Environmental Policy Act in 1970 – passed, it should be noted, partly thanks to a public backlash against the ravages of federal interstate highway construction – created time-consuming environmental impact reviews. Then there are regulations such as those on minority contracting, competitive bidding, prevailing wages and historic preservation.
When the Great Recession hit, these “checks that liberals created to keep the government from building roads, rails, and other infrastructure by executive fiat,” slowed job creation, liberal columnist Harold Meyerson lamented in a 2010 American Prospect article. “ Big government (the stimulus) was slowed by good-government requirements (environmental impact reports, competitive bidding and the like) that didn’t exist in the ’30s,” Meyerson wrote.
Ideally, Congress would substantially deregulate the process, but it’s probably too late. The many lawyers, consultants and interest groups that live off the status quo would resist significant change.
Not all obstruction is unjustified. As it happens, Kenny’s ruling on the California rail plan was almost certainly correct; the Brown and Obama administrations have never plausibly explained where they would get the $68 billion needed to build the whole California system. Even if completed, high-speed rail would not enhance productivity; rather, it would consume subsidies, as it does in other countries. With teleconferencing a reality and driverless cars on the way, bullet trains don’t seem so cutting-edge anymore, anyway.
In 2009, Obama lauded high-speed rail in Europe and Asia, and declared: “There’s no reason why we can’t do this. This is America.”
Actually, countries that have high-speed rail – China, Japan, France and Taiwan, for example – also tend to have much more centralized governments than the United States.
In other words, one reason we don’t have national high-speed rail, and probably never will, is that this is America.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.