The article about New York State’s decision to discontinue studying high-speed rail between New York and Buffalo is by itself not terribly surprising. Although Andrew Cuomo likes flashy public works projects, of which HSR is one, he is consistently pro-road and anti-rail.
The study released by the state sandbagged actual HSR on cost grounds – it did not provide any further analysis, and in two ways (lower average speed than most HSR lines, and a requirement for tilting) stacked the deck against it – but instead looked into medium-speed rail, with top speed of 110-125 mph, which is frequently misnamed HSR in the US. This, too, is not surprising. State DOTs have no idea how HSR works, and tend to make mistakes, not know how to do cost control, and so on.
What’s most surprising is the explanation for why not to do anything substantial: as one of the HSR proponents quoted in the article complains, “The State of New York is worried about making ends meet; the economy is not doing so great. That’s the reason in the short term.” Taking his argument at face value, the state is refusing to advance study of an HSR line because economic conditions are bad now, a decade or more before such line could even open.
The recession won’t last forever; if it does, there are bigger things to worry about than transportation. Other than immediate reconstruction projects, for which the environmental reviews are fast-tracked, major projects take years to do all the design and environmental studies. California has been planning HSR since the late 1990s. It intended to go to ballot in 2004, and after delays did so in 2008. HSR is scheduled to break ground later this year, assuming the state does not cancel the project. An HSR project for which planning starts now will start construction after the economy recovers not from this recession, but from the next one.
The recurrent theme in the article is the state’s preference for mundane over flashy projects, but rejecting HSR shows the exact opposite.Starting planning now costs very little. In fact, the best thing any state agency can do is keep planning multiple big-ticket project contingencies pending an infusion of money; this way, it can dust off plans and execute them faster if there’s a stimulus bill in the next recession. That’s long-term planning. Refusing to advance construction because it won’t start until long after Cuomo’s Presidential run in
2006 2016 isn’t.
Of course, the same goes in the other direction. Too many people, building on Keynesian stimulus ideas, want massive infrastructure spending now as a public works program. For example, Robert Cruickshank (and in comments, Bruce McF) argues for long-term benefits coming from the stimulus effect. Although construction in 2012-3 would have an impact, a multi-decade project spanning periods of both growth and recession should not rely on estimates of job creation solely from periods of recession. On the contrary, economic costs and benefits should be based on a long-term multi-business cycle trend.
I propose the following principles for interaction between business cycles and very long-term investment:
1. Assume your project will be undertaken in a period of close to (but not quite) full employment, in terms of both funding sources and economic effects, unless you specifically intend to advance construction in a recession.
2. If you want to use a recession to lock in lower interest rates, higher job impacts, or lower construction costs, make sure you have a shovel-ready project, or else try to advocate for better staffing at the requisite regulatory agencies well ahead of time so that they can fast-track it.
3. Treat fiscal surpluses coming from an economy at full employment as one-time shots rather than an ongoing situation that can be used for regular spending or tax cuts. Growth doesn’t last forever, either.