Yesterday, I tweeted in defence of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision to cancel of the Access to the Region’s Core project — the $10 billion plan to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River and a new terminal 120 feet below Herald Square in Midtown Manhattan.
The project was overly expensive and the terminal, in particular, was unnecessary — New York Penn Station, which currently receives trains from New Jersey, has plenty of platforms, they’re just used inefficiently today. We could much more cheaply build a new tunnel to serve the existing station.
Duncan Black accepts my premise, but says we should have built the tunnel anyway:
The choice is between increasing rail capacity into New York with an imperfect too expensive plan, or doing nothing at all anytime soon. We spend all kinds of money to do stupid destructive things that at best do nothing useful for us, so we should be willing to support spending all kinds of money on nice things when the opportunities present themselves.
This is the terrible result of Republican disengagement from efforts to optimise policy. Republicans aren’t interested in coming up with smarter, more efficient ways to build rail infrastructure. So Democrats fear that if they don’t defend wasteful, ill-conceived rail projects, they won’t get any at all.
And this dynamic isn’t limited to infrastructure. It also applies, for example, to the Rube Goldberg mess that is Obamacare, which Republicans aren’t interested in improving and Democrats feel they can’t be seen to criticise.
Republicans ought to be providing a healthy scepticism about government projects — attention to cost-effectiveness, awareness of opportunity cost, recognition that sometimes government actions produce unintended consequences. But a healthy sceptic sometimes conducts those evaluations and still says “yes” — which is why people take him seriously when he says “no.” Republicans have shifted from scepticism to pure obstinacy, fighting at every turn against government solutions, which is why their (sometimes perfectly valid) critiques of government action lack credibility.
Republicans ought to own the issue of American uncompetitiveness on infrastructure costs. They should seize on a report out today from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, about how America’s regulations on rolling stock prevent us from using the same kinds of train cars that European countries do. Our trains have to be custom-designed and heavy, which makes them more expensive, less efficient and less reliable. This is dumb and we should fix it.
But Republicans aren’t interested in building better rail projects — they just don’t want to build them at all. Christie hasn’t made a priority of building a smarter, cheaper Hudson tunnel to replace ARC; instead, he’s widening the New Jersey Turnpike. And when conservatives raise good criticisms of American infrastructure practices like CEI’s, liberals often don’t take them seriously, because they see conservatives as concern trolls.
It’s depressing. But it’s also one of the reasons I remain a Republican. By becoming the stupid party, Republicans have made Democrats stupider, too. If we’re going to have smarter debates on infrastructure and everything else, we will need two smart political parties to participate in them.
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