The Politics of Trains: If You Think Trains Are About Transportation & The Environment, Think Again
For the past several years, John Hieftje (among others, including new 53rd District State Representative Jeff Irwin, and Washtenaw County Commission Conan Smith) have been desperately trying to beg, borrow or steal the money to bring trains to Ann Arbor. Any train. How about $25 million for a train between those two Michigan metropolises Ann Arbor and Howell (WALLY)? How about a train between Ann Arbor and Detroit (no matter that Amtrak already runs between Ann Arbor and Detroit)? A Lionel train? A Thomas the Tank Engine train? John Hieftje and his pals want any train.
Why the obsession? Well, for starters, train projects, even modest train projects, can result in big money to dole out to business and political pals. Hieftje threw work (i.e. spent money he didn’t have) refurbishing train cars for the WALLY project despite the fact that the project wasn’t funded. Train projects in Michigan have historically been notorious for their “cost over-runs,” not to mention graft. In fact, the unsavory side of train construction in the mid-19th century resulted in a revision to Michigan’s Constitution to protect taxpayers. Trains, in short, are more about money and political influence, rather than about the environment or transportation improvements.
In the pursuit of trains Hieftje has skimmed millions from Ann Arbor’s General Fund. The next time you need a firefighter, and it takes a bit longer for the trucks and personnel to arrive, you can thank John Hieftje. In 2009, Hieftje spearheaded the creation of an Economic Development Fund. Economic development is good. We want economic development. Alas, there was no money to put in the fund, so Hieftje simply took money from the city’s General Fund. That resulted in the layoffs of firefighters, and a multi-million dollar early retirement pay-out to about two dozen police officers, who are paid for by money in, yes, the General Fund. There were other service cuts, as well, including to summer programs for children. Oh, and fees for services were hiked, including fees for sewer and water. Money from the Economic Development Fund has already been used for the Fuller Road Parking Garage being built for the University of Michigan, and which Hieftje (who was hired as a very highly paid “intermittent lecturer” by the University of Michigan a couple of years after his election) and his pals are desperately trying to disguise as a future “train depot.”
It was a move reminiscent of the Municipal Center Fund fandango. The dance goes like this: create a fund to spend money on something you don’t have the money for. Divert money from the General Fund to the new fund. Then, cut citizen services when the General Fund, shockingly, experiences a sudden “deficit.” The Muncipal Center Fund took $8 million dollars from the General Fund to be used as a down payment for the now over-budget 100,000 square foot, LEED certified, Municipal Center building. Yes, that’s the same building that the City Administrator recently told Council 50,000 square feet of which should be rented out to save money, rather than he used by the 15th District Court for which it allegedly had to be built.
It could be a Saturday Night Live skit, but for the fact that people are burning to death in houses around Ann Arbor with alarming regularity, and my neighbor still has his Christmas tree on his front lawn waiting, presumably, for Old Saint Nick to come and take it away. I finally told him that to have his Christmas tree taken away by a city, he’d have to move to Dexter, where residents pay 13 mills in property taxes, somewhat less than the 46 mills paid by the residents of Ann Arbor. (A house with a $200,000 taxable value in Dexter would be assessed $2,600 in property taxes. In Ann Arbor, the same house would be assessed $9,200 in property taxes.) In 2010, Ann Arbor officials discontinued Christmas tree pick-ups to, yes, “save money.”
I just didn’t have the heart to tell my 89-year-old neighbor that the leaves he spent weeks raking into the street this Fall, and which have by now hopelessly clogged the sewer drain, would never be picked up by city trucks. Ann Arbor officials discontinued leaf pick-ups to, yes, “save money.” So, I just listen to the man complain every time I see him, and encourage him to phone city officials. Well, alright, I didn’t tell him about the discontinued service, in part, because the old guy had put up a Hieftje for Mayor sign. The ice rink that has formed at the end of the fellow’s driveway and on both sides is a huge plus. Since Ann Arbor stopped making an outdoor ice rink at Northside School, the neighborhood kids have had nowhere skate for free. Oh, if you want to skate for free at an outdoor ice rink, you’re going to have to go to, yes, Dexter. City officials there found the money to create a really nice rink right downtown. Take your Christmas tree with you while you’re at it.
Back to the trains. So, Hieftje wants trains. Downtown Development Authority Board member Newcombe Clark, in an effort to be:
1. incredibly annoying, or
2. irritatingly pragmatic
last summer suggested spending $750,000 the DDA had squirreled away for the WALLY on….beat cops for downtown. County Commissioner and DDA Board member Leah Gunn and John Hieftje both quickly quashed Clark’s suggestion with the excuse that such a move would need much “more study.” Evidently, it’s not clear to either Hieftje or Gunn whether police are necessary to deter crime. Gunn, who has been on the DDA since John Quincy Adams was president, has numerous times been caught on video camera having lively conversations with the city’s new solar parking kiosks, which, she announced to her fellow DDA Board members at a public meeting, “everyone loves.”
Now, we have the bus system, AATA, being literally “repurposed” before our very eyes. The perpetual millage (2 mills out of the 46 we pay) for AATA is set to be used for “regional transportation” and, yes, trains. Just when you thought you were less charitable than you should be, you’ll be glad to know that going without to pay your Ann Arbor property taxes will help your friends all over Washtenaw County have a bus system and, Hieftje hopes, trains. Until AATA launches its regional transportation plan, the next few times you buy groceries, just take the whole car full over to a street corner in Saline and leave them for someone who could pay for their own groceries, but doesn’t have to because John Hieftje and his pals on the AATA Board have volunteered you to give them yours for free. Think of it as a new “regional food movement.” You buy. They eat.
It is always better to give than to receive. Particularly when you’re an Ann Arbor politico who spends as if the sky’s the limit. In true Ann Arbor style, WALLY train cars were refurbished (by a company owned by a Hieftje pal) before federal grant money was secured. In October 2010, it was reported that the feds had rejected the proposal for $25 million to fritter away on the wadiculous WALLY project. Perhaps federal officials were concerned because Livingston County officials had flatly refused to participate in funding the WALLY—which is supposed to run between just two cities, Howell and Ann Arbor. (It is AATA, somewhat disconcertingly, that is spending time and our tax dollars grubbing after capital and operating funds for the WALLY.)
Well, here’s a somewhat different perspective on the link between out-of-control spending, as vilified by President Obama in his State of the Union address recently, and trains. This perspective is brought to you by the folks at the National Review.
If the nation is going to reduce its out-of-control spending, the first step is to stop spending money on things we do not need. Despite President Obama’s call in his State of the Union speech for linking 80 percent of the nation by high-speed rail, it is hard to imagine a more unnecessary program.
For example, people who travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco — along the route planned for one of the nation’s first high-speed-rail projects — already have choices. They can fly, drive, take the bus, or travel by train. True, some would prefer to tax their fellow citizens so that they can have another choice, high-speed rail. But indulging this desire would be as legitimate as funding government grocery stores for people who prefer not to shop at their local grocery chains.
Among intercity transport modes, only Amtrak is materially subsidized. User fees pay virtually all the costs of airlines and airports, which (together with connecting ground transportation) link any two points in the nation within a day. The intercity highway system goes everywhere, and nearly all of it was built with user fees paid by drivers, truckers, and bus companies.
High-speed rail is a budget buster. Japan, with the world’s leading system, illustrates the financial devastation that high-speed rail can produce. For 25 years, Japan borrowed to build a system serving the ideal rail corridor, nestled along a single coast with a population of more than 75 million people. Ridership was artificially increased by high gasoline prices and one of the highest highway tolls in the world. Yet this modest system, only twice as long as proposed California system, played a major role in driving up a gargantuan rail debt that was transferred to Japanese taxpayers. The rail debt added more than 10 percent to the national debt. This is akin to adding $1.4 trillion to the U.S. national debt.
Virtually everywhere high-speed rail has been constructed, financial liability has fallen to the taxpayers. In Taiwan and the United Kingdom, taxpayers assumed billions of dollars in private debts for much more modest high-speed-rail systems than Japan’s.
All of this could have been avoided. Through the years, high-speed-rail cost overruns have been well documented. Most recently, research by Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University, Nils Bruzelius of Stockholm University, and Werner Rothengatter of the University of Karlsruhe (a former president of the influential World Conference on Transportation Research) found that passenger-rail cost overruns above 40 percent were common and that overruns above 80 percent were not uncommon. Overruns can go even higher: On Korea’s high-speed-rail project, they were between 200 and 300 percent, the president of the country’s rail system said.
High-speed-rail cost escalation has reached these shores. Even before the first shovel has been turned, California’s high-speed-rail costs have risen at least 50 percent, inflation adjusted. The cost estimates for the first approved section of the Los Angeles–to–San Francisco line, a “train to nowhere” from Corcoran to Borden, indicate escalation beyond $45 billion.
In Florida, boosters tell taxpayers that their liability for the Tampa to Orlando high-speed-rail line would be only $280 million, and that, somehow, a private bidder will shower additional billions upon them to pay any cost overruns.
Boosters also claim that high-speed rail will provide substantial environmental benefits, reduce highway-traffic congestion, and ease air-traffic congestion. Yet, as Joseph Vranich and I showed in the Reason Foundation’s “Due Diligence” report on California’s high-speed-rail proposal, the cost per ton of greenhouse gas removed would be from $1,900 to $10,000. This is 40 to 250 times what the International Panel on Climate Change research indicates greenhouse-gas removal should cost ($50 per ton). Our estimate does not account for the revised (much lower) ridership projection. Even the rosy reports produced by boosters show that high-speed rail would remove only a small percentage of cars from the roads. The hope of reducing air congestion is just as elusive because travel origins and destinations are so dispersed in the United States and because the number of people forsaking air travel for high-speed rail will be small.
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