Building a Light-Rail System to Nowhere
At the aforementioned forum/debate on Proposition A, which would establish a new half-cent tax to fund MetroLink’s expansion and other Metro services, an important question was raised: What constitutes a plan?
Speaking in favor of the tax increase, Mayor John Nations of Chesterfield said that the details of plans for future expansion are contingent on the availability of funds from the federal and state government. Speaking in opposition of the tax increase, John Burns of Citizens for Better Transit noted that MetroLink’s plans do not stipulate where and when a project would be built, and that a “plan” needs to answer these questions before it can really be considered a plan.
This difference strikes me as an application of the following passage in Economics in One Lesson, “Public Works Mean Taxes,” by Henry Hazlitt:
But a bridge built primarily “to provide employment” is a different kind of bridge. When providing employment becomes the end, need becomes a subordinate consideration. “Projects” have to be invented. Instead of thinking only of where bridges must be built the government spenders begin to ask themselves where bridges can be built.
Public works projects are acceptable when they serve an actual purpose. However, successfully securing funds from the federal or state government does not constitute an actual purpose. This is a concept on which John Burns, Henry Hazlitt, and I appear to agree. If they are to be economically productive, such expenditures must fulfill a need other than
diverting creating jobs — or, as Mayor Nations said during the debate, “providing an economic engine for the region.” At the very least, a plan should include basic information such as when and where a public works project will be built. Otherwise, it’s another proverbial “bridge to nowhere.”