Las Vegas is better than Shelbyville

Patrick Gibbons

In 1993 a young writer named Conan O’Brian penned an episode of the hit TV show The Simpsons. Titled Marge vs. the Monorail, the episode was one where the town of Springfield finds itself with surplus cash, and the townspeople decide they must spend the money on something. A fast-talking traveling salesman named Lyle Lanley sells the people of Springfield on the idea that they need to have a monorail – telling them, each time they get an idea that maybe the monorail is a bad idea, that he will just take his project to Shelbyville.

Springfield, not wanting to be outdone by Shelbyville, is stampeded and blindly agrees to build the monorail. Of course, nothing is as it seems and the monorail is nothing but snake oil allowing Lanley to get rich before he skips town to sell this fad to the next town of suckers.

Perhaps unwittingly, the Simpsons episode basically captured all politics in a nutshell. Someone produces a crazy and expensive idea, which the politicians love. The people are told they just can’t live without it and oh, by the way, the project is really expensive. Not surprisingly the project doesn’t live up to its potential, a few rich people get richer, taxpayers are stuck with the bill, and politicians – in order to build their “look what I accomplished as your leader” resumes – eagerly look for the next scam to sell to taxpayers.

Light rail and high speed rail are old fads that the Obama administration is trying to resuscitate. Recently the president announced a $13 billion plan for (moderate) speed trains that would create between 100-600 miles of “high speed” rail lines while also rebuilding existing freight lines. Conventional Amtrak diesel trains would carry passengers on regular freight rail – not as exciting as a maglev and not as expensive. More recently Senator Harry Reid threw his support behind Desert Xpress, a “high” speed train that would run between Las Vegas and always-exciting Victorville, California. Desert Xpress claims that under the public-private partnership plan it is pursuing, “the private sector provides and operates the system at no cost to the taxpayers … and assumes all risks including performance, ridership, and revenue.” The role of the “public” – i.e., various state and local governments – would be to issue permits for the project and approve “shared use of existing transportation rights of way.” Nevertheless, with $13 billion promised by the Obama administration in support for high speed rail, it’s hard to believe Desert Xpress won’t end up in the line for tax dollars.

If the project does end up 100 percent privately funded, it will be entirely laudable – meaning people are willing to bet their own money that the high speed rail will work. On the other hand, if they seek government subsidies it means they expect the project will likely fail and are trying to protect their own pocketbooks by making taxpayers pay the freight.

Obama’s plan, itself, is a major recipe for failure, as a forthcoming NPRI study will document in detail. When incredibly expensive projects are considerably less effective than far-cheaper alternatives, you have to wonder exactly what is cooking with our political leaders.

Unfortunately, the answer is as simple as the Simpsons episode. Nearly always these people are selling us snake oil – expensive and ineffective fads whereby they get rich and we get stuck with the bill.

*UPDATE – June 14, 2009. It now appears as if DesertXpress will be seeking taxpayer support. We are not surprised.