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Paying for Silicon Valley’s Transit Upgrade

Walter Russell Mead

If there is one corridor in the whole country that ought to be able to manage its transportation need without help from Washington, it is the commuter rail corridor between San Francisco and San Jose. But to hear the Washington Post tell it, the corridor’s $2 billion shovel-ready upgrade, which was to be underwritten by a $647 million federal grant, is put on hold due to partisan bickering:

The delay has infuriated California officials, who had hoped the long-awaited project would mesh nicely with President Trump’s call for fresh spending on the nation’s aging infrastructure. But in this era of distrust and polarization, an otherwise popular initiative has become a GOP target, seen as a pet project of the former president.

If federalism means anything at all, it means that states and cities should, unless some grave emergency exists, be responsible for their own transit and transportation infrastructure. The idea that Uncle Sugar will pay for local transit needs is appealing—if you are a contractor, a union boss, or an elected official.

A case can be made that in exceptional circumstances the feds should help out—very poor places, places where federal installations like military bases create special issues, places recovering from national disasters. One can also make the case for programs like the interstate highway system whose impact is national (and one of the purposes of the interstate system was to allow faster movement of goods and men in the event of a war). But little by little we have allowed ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that the federal honeypot should be subsidizing local transit everywhere.

Of course, once we’ve reached that stage, the logical move is for all politicians to fight for their place at the trough. And from the standpoint of voters, it makes sense too: if you are already shelling out for everyone else’s transport needs, you might as well get something for yourself.

Unfortunately, as federal funds enter the mix, so do higher costs and also a certain lack of discipline and focus in thinking about transit needs. As long as you can pay for something with Other Peoples’ Money you aren’t as careful as you are when its your own pocketbook that feels the pinch.

Now that we’ve reached this place, it would be unwise to stop all funding for all local projects right away. But as we begin to try to restore some sanity to the budget process, it makes sense to start with local projects that serve rich areas. If Silicon Valley can’t, without crippling hardship, get its workers from San Francisco to San Jose, then the country might as well close up shop.

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