In his new book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Richard White explores the financing of railroads in the American West and the political process behind it. In history books, this accomplishment is often looked on as a heroic feat of engineering and perseverance, but White offers a contrasting perspective of the abuse of tax dollars and manipulation of public opinion. I have not had a chance to read his book yet, but White offered a very interesting interview on Morning Edition. He explained:
Western railroads, particularly the transcontinental railroads, would not have been built without public subsidies, without the granting of land, and more important than that, loans from the federal government … because there is no business [in the West at that time], there is absolutely no reason to build [railroads] except for political reasons and the hope that business will come.
Unlike the railroads of the Northeast where Vanderbilt made his fortune, private financiers were uninterested in the West, where rails would not be making a foreseeable profit. If the expected benefits of an infrastructure project outweigh the expected costs, private financing will be available in the absence of public funding. Only when costs are expected to exceed benefits do infrastructure projects require subsidies. Historically, the argument that infrastructure is a public good that must be paid for by taxpayers has been proven false by private infrastructure projects ranging from highways to lighthouses, canals, and city streets.
The transcontinental railroad, the largest public works project of its time, marked a shift toward American policy of relying principally on federally funded infrastructure rather than on entrepreneurs to supply these goods. In the 20th century, the Federal Highway Act of course dwarfed the scale of the transcontinental railroad, and today publicly provided infrastructure is claimed to do everything from creating jobs to allowing for long run economic growth. Without a market mechanism to guide infrastructure construction, we are left with the clumsy political process to determine the amount and distribution of money spent on transportation.