Pork puzzler

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In Sunday’s Washington Post, Michael Grunwald wrote a thoughtful piece on the roots and routine of pork, suggesting that earmarks aren’t necessarily the problem, wasteful spending is:

Politicians have always cared about pork, but in the past, federal transportation bills at least tried to address major transportation problems. In the 1950s, the interstate highway system was created to bolster national security as well as individual mobility in the automotive age. In 1991, Congress passed a transportation bill with funding for buses, trains and bicycle paths as well as traditional highways, a response to car-dependent trends in American culture and federal policies.

By 2005, the interstate highway system was complete, but America still faced a variety of transportation crises. Traffic was awful and getting worse, idling sport-utility vehicles were contributing to global warming, mass-transit systems were crumbling, and nearly one-third of the nation’s urban bridges were rated structurally deficient or obsolete. But the debate over the transportation bill avoided those pressing issues. It was all about who got what, and how much.

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Earmarks were just part of the bill’s larger public policy problem: Instead of addressing the problems of the cities and suburbs where most Americans live, such as traffic, smog, lousy mass transit and dilapidated roads and bridges, it will subsidize sprawl by promoting new highways in sparsely developed areas — roads to nowhere, so to speak.

It’s well worth reading the whole thing, but here is a question Grunwald doesn’t raise but that has been nagging at me since I started looking into this stuff.

One of things that local officials backing things like the Knik Arm Bridge or the railroad relocation project in Mississippi will note is that the economic development generated by these projects–the increased business activity (not just in building the things, but those using them), increased employment, increased property values–in turn generates enough additional tax revenue that the projects, over the course of a dozen years or more, pay for themselves. These projections may well be inflated, rely entirely on rosy scenarios, or, even if based on sound assumptions, might for unforeseen reasons prove faulty. But, insofar as it’s possible to project these kinds of things, is it wasteful to spend money on a project that ultimately produces more revenues than it costs?

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