The Silver Line and ‘Big Success’

Here in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, one of the largest ongoing construction projects is the effort to extend MetroRail to Washington Dulles International Airport—the so-called ‘Silver Line.’ The project is decades overdue, and will eventually connect to a disintegrating rail system managed by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). The project itself is being managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) which, like WMATA, operates with virtually no oversight and has a history of botching projects and running them far over-budget.

The highlights of the Silver Line project so far include massive, unjustifiable, and continuing toll increases on the MWAA-operated Dulles Toll Road (ostensibly to pay for Silver Line construction), an inexplicable decision to run above-ground rails through the densely occupied Tysons Corner area where it would be worth the extra cost to go underground (since it would cause less traffic disruption and rebuilding), an equally inexplicable decision to dig a more expensive tunnel near the airport where it would not be worth the extra cost, a conflict with the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) over pier support safety, violations of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s right to work laws, and a long line of budget conflicts with the Town of Herndon, Loudoun County, and the Commonwealth.

When faced with all this madness, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (R)—notable for now being the only Republican in President Barack Obama’s (D) cabinet—described the Silver Line as being a model for big success and compared it to the Panama Canal, Hoover Dam, and the interstate highway system.

Now, just a minute here. Let’s compare these four infrastructure accomplishments. U.S. work on the Panama Canal took ten years, spanned nearly fifty miles across mountains and untamed jungle, and cost about 9 billion dollars (inflation adjusted, 2009). The Hoover Dam took five years to build, used over three million cubic yards of concrete, spanned 1,244 feet and rose 726 feet above the canyon, created a 247 square mile reservoir, and cost over 750 million dollars (inflation adjusted, 2009). The interstate highway system spans over forty-seven thousand miles, crosses countless natural obstacles, took thirty-five years to complete to the initial specifications (which have since been extended), and has been estimated to cost about 425 billion dollars (inflation adjusted, 2006)—arguably making it the biggest public works project in human history.

How does the Silver Line compare? Assuming it is completed on-schedule in 2018, it will have taken ten years to build—the same as the Panama Canal, and twice as long as the Hoover Dam. It will have added twenty-three miles of track and eleven stations to the Metro system at a projected cost of about $6.8 billion—nine times more than the cost of the Hoover Dam, and two-thirds as much as the much more challenging (and twice as long) Panama Canal. If you do some simple math based on the statistics above, our interstate highway system averages a cost of $9.04 million-per-mile . . . so for the cost of the twenty-three mile Silver Line, we could have built over seven hundred miles of new interstate highway, or widened and improved much more than that.

So by what measure is LaHood claiming that the Silver Line is a ‘big success?’ By what measure does he compare it to the Panama Canal, Hoover Dam, and interstate highway system? The only thing this comparison accomplishes is reminding us that we used to do big, impressive things . . . and we used to do them faster and at lower costs than we seem to be able to today.

When the Great Depression took hold in the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) launched the ‘New Deal’—an unprecedented federal effort to reinvigorate the U.S. economy. Nearly half of economists agree that it had the opposite effect, lengthening and deepening the depression—a sentiment with which I generally agree. The ‘New Deal’ had the effect of lowering unemployment rates, yes, but it didn’t actually fix any of the fundamental economic problems facing the country. It drastically increased federal debt, and thereby suppressed any real, long-term recovery.

But does that mean the ‘New Deal’ was a resounding failure? Yes and no. Evaluated economically, yes. It did not have the desired effect of ending, or even seriously mitigating, the effects of the depression, and it helped establish crushing federal debt as a national norm. But despite this, even its harshest critics have to admit that it built stuff . . . big, impressive, important stuff like the Hoover Dam, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the rural electric grid. Later on, the government funded the building of LaGuardia Airport in New York City, the Overseas Highway through the Florida Keys, and the Oakland Bay Bridge in California. And any one of these projects dwarf the Silver Line in every measure but cost.

The entire ‘New Deal’ is estimated to have cost as much as 50 billion dollars, which comes out to about 768 billion dollars in today’s dollars. Whether or not we agree it was justified, we can certainly point to its fruits: the countless dams, airports, highways, bridges, schools, military bases, parks, and more. For 768 billion dollars, we got the Hoover Dam, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Overseas Highway, the Oakland Bay Bridge, the electrification of rural America, and over thirty-five thousand other public works projects scattered across the nation . . . all in less time than it has taken to extend a Metro line to Dulles airport. And this isn’t even counting the ‘social safety net’ programs, which make up a significant portion of the costs.

In 2008, President George W. Bush (R) signed the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) into law, handing over 700 billion dollars in bailouts to big banks and auto firms. Then in 2009, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) into law, spending another 831 billion dollars in economic ‘stimulus,’ which included significant increases in infrastructure spending. Even if you accept the debatable argument that TARP essentially broke-even, and then adjust for inflation, the depressing fact remains that we have dumped more ‘stimulus’ money into the economy in the last four years than we did during the entire Great Depression.

And what do we have to show for it? Where is the new Hoover Dam, Overseas Highway, or Blue Ridge Parkway? Where are the new airports, the reinvigorated infrastructure, the reduction in unemployment? Where are the new schools, highways, and rail lines? Heck, we didn’t even bother to use that money to bolster and repair the fiscally insolvent ‘New Deal’ social programs, which are quickly reaching the ends of their lives. An entire ‘New Deal’ worth of federal spending seems to have disappeared into a black hole; we got the bigger deficits and economic suppression without the impressive infrastructure projects or reduced unemployment.

Of course there are a few visible infrastructure improvements scattered around, and some—notably not including the Silver Line—were indeed funded by Obama’s ‘stimulus’ bill. However most of our current infrastructure spending is spending that was already happening anyway, coming from existing transportation earmarks and state general fund disbursements. Here in northern Virginia, the ARRA funded construction on the last section of the Fairfax County Parkway, but most of our other major projects—the Interstate 66 widening, the U.S. 50 widening, the Silver Line,  and more—were already scheduled and in-progress before ARRA came along. Those ‘shovel ready projects’ that ARRA was supposed to fund, and the jobs that were supposed to come with them, seem to be few and far between.

LaHood seems to be trying to point out that big infrastructure projects are happening in America today, but the Silver Line is no ‘big success.’ It is a tiny, inconsequential part of America’s infrastructure that will take ten years to build and cost an incredible $6.8 billion. It wasn’t that long ago that a decade of time, billions of dollars, and American ingenuity built the Panama Canal across an untamed, mountainous jungle. Today, it can only build twenty miles of rail line and a handful of stations down the flat median of a highway.

Are we really so debased that we look at a short commuter rail line through the suburbs and pat ourselves on the backs as if we’ve built the Hoover Dam? Are we really so diminished as a nation that we think one half-finished, mismanaged regional construction project compares to the entire interstate highway system, or to a canal linking the two great oceans? If so, then our greatest days are truly behind us.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.