Transportation Policy

Trains to Nowhere: A Government Spending Problem

From New York to California, the government manages to mess up transportation.


When Democrats and Republicans agree, I get nervous. It often means that they agree to grab my wallet.

Both parties now agree that we don't have extra budget money lying around, but both say government does need to spend more on "infrastructure."

Even conservatives want more spent on roads and mass transit.

The reason, advocates claim, is that infrastructure, unlike most government spending, has a "multiplier effect"—it creates new wealth by doing things like speeding up travel.

Well, it might.

Advocates also point out something that seems obvious to them: Infrastructure is a job that must be done by government. Who else would launch big projects like the New York City subway system? Subways are what Big Government supporters call a "public good."

They are important to many people, but there's no way that business would build subways or run them, they argue. Subways lose billions of dollars. Entrepreneurs would never invest in subway cars or dig subway tunnels—there's no profit in that.

But often what we "obviously know" … is not so.

Most of New York's subways were actually built by private companies. Few New Yorkers even know that. Private companies dug the first tunnels and ran the trains for about 40 years. But when they wanted to raise the fare to a dime, the politicians said they had to "protect" the public. Government took over the system, saying only "public ownership" could guarantee affordable fares.

But government doesn't do anything well. Under government management, profit disappeared and the fare rose well beyond the inflation-adjusted equivalent of what the private companies had wanted to charge.

Now, politicians want you to buy them new trains. Who wouldn't like a shiny new train? The Obama administration gave your money to California politicians who want to build a 200-m.p.h. train to take people from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Somehow, in the tradition of political boondoggles everywhere, the train that politicians actually approved doesn't yet come close to either city. It starts, and ends, "in the boondocks," says Reason magazine's Adrian Moore.

"I live in a little mountain town called Tehachapi," he says. "It's in the middle of nowhere, 50 miles to the nearest Walmart … the high-speed rail line in California comes right through my town. This thing is like the boondoggle of boondoggles."

When I confronted train advocate Dennis Lytton about that, he said, "They're starting high-speed rail in the middle of the state because that's where you can build it fast."

He also said, "Private investors will be part of the mix." But when I asked if any have invested so far, he said, "Not at this time."

People who spend their own money know better.

Lytton also claimed that California's Amtrak trains are "packed." So we investigated that claim. It turns out to be far from the truth. On average, California's Amtrak trains are one third full.

Government planning leads to transit systems that lose money on every passenger, airports where there are few passengers or planes and bridges to nowhere.

America does need mass transit. Three hundred million people need to go places. Roads are congested. Who will provide it when government drives transit entrepreneurs out of the business?

Well, instead of building giant rail projects in the boondocks, how about letting people ride buses?

Buses, privately owned buses, are now the fastest growing mass transit in America. Buses are much cheaper than trains. Amtrak charges about $150 to ride from New York to D.C. Buses charge less than $20. And buses don't require new land seizure through eminent domain. Buses aren't locked into straight-line routes. They go where people go. And when people move, buses, unlike trains, change routes.

Let services be paid for by the people who use them and built by people who put potential profits on the line. Otherwise, politicians will take us for a ride.

NEXT: Family of Teen Killed Following Police Tazing Sues

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  1. Cooperation is hard.
    Coercion is easy.
    Therefore, coercion is good.

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  2. Hey, does anyone know the origin of that train photo accompanying this article? Was it a real disaster or what?

    1. It was in France at the Gare Montparnasse.

      1. Oh, those crazy French! There’s no limit to how far they’ll go to make us laugh.

    2. Thanks, guys.

      1. You’re lucky you got any help at all. This IS a libertarian site…


        1. *rise to begin vigorous applause*


  3. Most of New York’s subways were actually built by private companies.

    Yes, but where are those companies now? They couldn’t compete in the marketplace with the government’s efficiency!

  4. Have I mentioned I like Stossel?

  5. The weird statements made about “public good” projects are legion. I heard an interview with Bill Nye justifying increased government spending on NASA because (a) the space program has given us all kinds of technological advancement; (b) if the government didn’t do it, no one would have; (c) pays for great science high schools.

    The government ran the space program from the beginning so there is no way to know whether private investment would have got involved. Maybe, maybe not, but no way to know. Same with technological advances: b/c they came from the government-sponsored space program there was no possible alternative pathway which might have developed such goods (according to Nye’s argument). And, god knows, high tech companies would NEVER fund science high schools in the absence of government funding.

    You can have a good faith argument about government & science but to assert that because something happened one way, that is the only way it could ever have happened is absurd. And, coming from a guy who represents the public voice of science is even worse.

    1. Bill Nye – The Collectivist Guy

      1. “Always quick to lie.” Bill Nye – The fabulist “Pseudoscience Guy”

    2. You know, you can see how much the mindset has changed in this country by looking at old science fiction. Many of the stories involving early space flight (before we had it, that is), saw the rockets being built by private actors.

      Now, of course, it’s “impossible” without the government, which is totally nuts.

      1. Whenever I look at old science fiction I see this and nothing else.

        1. Told him not to get that Red Ryder bb gun, but did he listen? Nooooooo….

        2. Not this, jesse?

          (It’s actually a terribly boring movie, a real miss by Mario Bava)

          1. What are those, Space Nazis? Look like Space Nazis to me.

          2. Anything with Barbara Bach can’t be that bad.

            1. That’s not her in the picture. At least, I don’t think it is.

                1. Jesus. 7 writers? Screenplay by committee always makes for a surefire success.

              1. There’s this wonderful thing called http addressing that allows me to go straight to the home page for a website and look at all the other stuff.

          3. I have no idea what that movie is, Epi. Maybe we can have a movie night and you can educate me.

            1. He’ll just send his mom.

            2. If we’re going to have a movie night, jesse, there are far better Mario Bava movies to be had. For instance, Cani Arrabbiati.

              1. easily the most nihilistic of Mario Bava’s films

                Sounds fun.

                1. No, jesse, these men are nihilists, there’s nothing to be afraid of.

        3. I recall seeing that painting hanging on the wall over at Jules Verne’s pad.

      2. The statists and the collectivists figured out early on that owning the media, the schools, and entertainment was critical. And they were right. And they succeeded in taking over those industries.

        Effectively, they won.

        1. They realized the value of propaganda in ways conservatives and libertarians would never even think. There’s that progressive math book someone mentioned here a few weeks ago. That’s the kind of thing libertarians or conservatives would never think of because we are not so evil and underhanded. Who thinks of forcing politics into something as apolitical as mathematics or science? Only progressives would be so vulgar.

          1. They want to collectivize and control so much more than we can ever understand. They will work tirelessly to achieve objectives that seem repulsive to us.

            It’s like fighting a virus. All it does, all it wants to do, is infect you. How do you fight that and still have a normal life like a normal individual human being?

            1. My wife was watching a video on Common Core, which seems to have some insidious political angles. But what doesn’t in education?

              1. Who could ever think the second step* toward a Federally-mandated standardized curriculum wouldn’t have insidious political angles?

                *NCLB was the first step

                  1. Regional Interest:
                    Atlanta 100
                    San Antonio 97
                    Houston 86
                    Dallas 83
                    Philadelphia 80
                    Chicago 79
                    New York 75
                    Los Angeles 62
                    Washington 60
                    London 18

                    Lies. Google is conspiring with MI5 to hide the existence of the underground twerk clubs where young women are forced to compete against in other in ass-shaking contests to the death.

                    1. Why do those black men talk like David Beckham?

                    2. The first rule of twerk club is disinfect yourself on the way out.

          2. Johnny has sixteen orphans working in his diamond mine/indestructible monocle factory. Every day one orphan dies due to diamond dust inhalation related COPD. How many OSHA inspectors does it take to stop Johnny from his oppression of the proletariat?

            1. How many OSHA inspectors does it take to stop Johnny from his oppression of the proletariat?

              Three. One to fine Johnny, one to call the EPA, and one to supervise.

              1. Incorrect. The correct answer is “0” this is a libertarian math book, get out of my gulch!

                1. You didn’t specify the operating terms! I demand justice.

                  Help! Help! I’m being microagressed!

          3. Anytime politics or religion is being injected into mathematics, or the hard sciences, there’s no good in store for us.

            1. That’s the least titillating sentence containing the words “injected” and “hard” I’ve ever read.

        2. “Just like they would never run a (Chinatown) bus company.”

          Nor would private companies build a Transcontinental RR…


          Hit the link to the US one: full link too long for the squirrels.

        3. You can see that in Nye. I have no reason to think he’s a shill for collectivists but he really does believe that the only way science will advance is if the government does it.

          1. It’s well known that the discovery of fire was the result of long work by the Australopithecus Academy of Sciences sponsored with rocks funded by the Caveman Collective.

  6. It often means that they agree to grab my wallet.

    You may want to use your other hand to cover your ass. They like to use “bipartisanship” to pry that open too.

    They are important to many people, but there’s no way that business would build subways or run them, they argue. Subways lose billions of dollars. Entrepreneurs would never invest in subway cars or dig subway tunnels — there’s no profit in that.

    Just like they would never run a (Chinatown) bus company.

    “I live in a little mountain town called Tehachapi,” he says. “It’s in the middle of nowhere, 50 miles to the nearest Walmart … the high-speed rail line in California comes right through my town. This thing is like the boondoggle of boondoggles.”

    The prison guards union and their families have a right to high-speed choo-choos.

    1. Forget it, Al. Its Chinatown.

  7. It’s not a spending problem, it’s a revenue problem. If only the government could get more revenue, they’d be able to build all the trains to nowhere they wanted!

  8. I just realized I saw this article posted yesterday at Townhall. Stossel, have you been two timing us with that painted whore?

    1. If you play your cards right, maybe you can aim for a mustache threesome.

      1. “Alright, who wants a mustache ride?”

    2. No, that’s a good thing. Libertarians should be making their case more broadly to conservatives. And Stossel is very good at doing that.

  9. I’m all for the feds spending as much as they’d like on infrastructure, provided they provide for it from existing revenues. I’ll take new infrastructure over capitalizing virtually any existing government operation. Slash the budgets of the FDA, EPA, MIC, whatever. You want infrastructure, you can pay for infrastructure.

    1. “Dweebston: For ROADZ!”

      You should run for office with that slogan.

      1. “Roads for childrens.”

        Where do I collect my consultation check?

        1. You might need to be upgraded from my John Yoo to my Karl Rove. I will ponder this.

  10. But government doesn’t do anything well.

    Au contraire, Monsieur Stossel!

    1) Exterminate large numbers of people
    2) Create shortages of items through price controls
    3) Steal everything you can think of from anyone at any time
    4) Break stuff – some smaller (think – “companies”), some bigger (think “countries”)
    5) Regulate products and services to the point they’re no longer provided at all
    6) Failing to act on repeated credible information about threats to the citizens it is sworn to serve (think “Bahston Bombers”)
    7) Locking up citizens for years, and years, and years for any number of reasons – or no reason at all!

    There are others. This was just off the top of my head – shit that government is REALLY good at. Now, whether any of these things is “good” or “desirable” is a different question.

    1. God Al, you’re such a downer. The state of Nevada built a really nice road from the CA border to Vegas. It does at least that well. Sure the maintenance costs could’ve been better spent elsewhere but it’s a REALLY NICE road.

    2. You forgot the most important thing of all: government gives the worst possible people more power than they ever should have had access to, which leads to most if not all of your list. It is the root of all of it.

      Government is basically a jobs program for sociopaths.

      1. Look, we relied for decades on the market to provide satisfying jobs at a living wage for sociopaths, and it failed utterly. It’s a textbook case of market failure. But you free-market fundamentalists don’t care at all about them, do you?

        1. The sociopath job market used to be bigger, but libretardians don’t want to admit that this required government subsidies. It used to be that your average sociopath could graduate high school and get a remunerating, rewarding job shooting Jewish children in the head. But free marketeers came in and outsourced the work to Ukrainians, and ruined good genocide jobs.

          1. After “libretardians” I read the rest of the post in Peter Griffin’s voice.

    3. 5) Regulate products and services to the point they’re no longer provided at all

      Market failure!

    4. 8) Send men to the moon and bring them back safely.

  11. OT: I have found the greatest quote of all time.

    One U.S. official who has been briefed on the options on Syria said he believed the White House would seek a level of intensity “just muscular enough not to get mocked” but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia.

    This is our government. They are officially basing foreign policy on how much other nations might laugh at us.

    1. the legacy of Dubya

    2. just muscular enough

      We are ruled by body-dysmorphic girls. “I just don’t wanna get too bulky, you know?”

      1. So Barack’s plan is to gorge on government spending and then barf it up?

      2. Does this Tomahawk missile make my ass look fat?

    3. Did you think they operated on any level beyond that of, essentially, high school? Washington is one huge, depraved production of Heathers.

      1. Killer pate, but I gotta motor.

        1. Warty, why can’t you just be a friend? Why do you have to be such a mega-bitch?

          1. My son’s a homosexual, and I love him. I love my dead gay son!

            1. Sit ‘n’ spin, America!

              1. Rhywun, why are you pulling my dick?

                1. You don’t deserve my fucking speech.

                2. Lick it up, Epi. Lick. It. Up.

        2. Did you eat a brain tumor for breakfast?

          1. I think Ted Kennedy did…

      2. So would Travon be Obama’s Dead Gay son?

        1. we’re all everyone’s dead gay son.

      3. Those outside of the corridors of power are Martha Dumptruck before Veronica befriends her.

      4. What is your damage, Obamica?

  12. When I was young, a private bus company served the metropolitan area where we lived. One bus line went through my neighborhood and provided decent service. Then, however, politicians promised us that takeover by a public transit district would improve service. The transit district quickly “improved” my neighborhood route out of existence and has raised fares at a rate several times that of inflation while still requiring taxpayer subsidies.

  13. ermagosh…don’t post graphics of dead choochoos!

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      1. How about we just delete your account instead?


  15. Most of New York’s subways were actually built by private companies.

    This isn’t true – all of the underground lines and the post-1904 above-ground lines were built by the city and leased to private companies to operate. Only some of the pre-existing above-ground lines were built privately.

    Totally agree, however, that the state’s agencies have managed to run the system into the ground ever since. To the point where NYC famously has the world’s only shrinking subway system.

    1. That said, some of the rail tunnels (like the PATH ones) were privately built, I believe.

  16. The Infrastructure Cycle:

    Top Men: OHMYGOD! THIS COUNTRY’S INFRASTRUCTURE IS FALLING APART!!! We have to immediately launch a program to repair it or WE’LL ALL DIE!! You have to get out your checkbook and pay for this NOW!
    Taxpayer: sigh….(writes check)
    (three minutes pass)
    Top Men: Of course, I hope you do understand that projects are going to require the appropriate environmental, aesthetic and urban space planning studies. And obviously we need to make sure that the jobs on these projects all pay union scale. Of course, that includes appropriate set-asides for those historically disadvantaged in the infrastructure development process. And did we mention that priority in project planning is going to go for infrastructure in Congressman Bumblefark’s district? It’s entirely appropriate, of course. His district suffers from a historical deficit of infrastructure and never really had the opportunity to develop. And you know, while we’re at it, what’s all so special about bridges and tunnels and roads? I mean, the Europeans are doing some incredible things with high speed rail. And what about investments in education? Healthcare? Isn’t that just as much a part of our infrastructure?
    (ten minutes pass)
    Top Men: OHMYGOD! THIS COUNTRY’S INFRASTRUCTURE IS FALLING APART! We have to immediately launch a program to repair it or WE’LL ALL DIE!! You have to get out your checkbook and pay for this NOW!

  17. But, but, but?..if we allow private companies to step in and provide mass transit for people, THEY MIGHT DO IT WRONG!

    (as opposed to the government, which to judge by history will absolutely certainly do it wrong)

    1. There’s something comfortable about certainty. It takes all those nasty surprises out of life.

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  20. Did you know that the forerunner of America’s superhighways was built by rich people wanting to race their newfangled horseless carriages?…..or_Parkway

  21. Florida East Coast Railroad is building a $1 billion+ privately-run railroad between Miami & Orlando.

    As someone who gave up his car 6 years ago and relies on my feet and the bus/rail here in Miami, I think the future will hold a combo. of government and private transit.

    The idea for private transit I like best is this: picture a larger capacity electric golf cart. While it won’t work well in cold months, the initial purchase and running costs are much lower, allowing a private entrepreneur to transport small amounts of people short distances profitably (and for a low fare).

    Here’s an idea of the vehicle: These guys provide what amounts to free taxi service (they’ll take you any where on Miami Beach); the costs are paid by tips and advertising on the vehicles.

    We do have some privately-run bus services here in Miami and while I’m happy to see them, their vehicles (cargo vans or tiny buses like the car rental companies use at airports) are not in the best of shape (indicating they don’t make much profit–they charge the same as the gov-run bus service).

  22. don’t have extra budget money lying around, but both

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