The nationwide uproar over the inclusion of Mississippi's $700 million "railroad to nowhere" into the Senate's war-time and Katrina-relief supplemental spending bill has put the project's proponents on the defensive. Responding to editorial criticism from the Wall Street Journal, Jim Barksdale, chairman of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal, responded with a May 4 letter-to-the-editor providing new and novel arguments in support of moving the CSX rail line.
Mr. Barksdale takes issue with the commonly reported contention that the Governor's Commission report criticizes the relocation of the CSX rail traffic. Yet page 30, column 2 of this report clearly states, "The numbers, however, are daunting. One study puts the price tag for relocating the rail line north of I-10 at $795 million. That idea is no longer seen as practical." Mr. Barksdale responds that other portions of the same report endorse relocating the rail line. In other words, he defends this report by asserting its own contradictions and overall incoherence. Those who dislike one recommendation can find the opposite position recommended later. The defense of this report is, to put it mildly, underwhelming.
While one might quibble with that passage's exact price tag ($795 million versus $700 million) or the exact spot of the relocation (perhaps converting the current line to a trolley and re-route the CSX to other existing rail lines), few know these specifics because project proponents have refused to specify them publicly. Furthermore, these distinctions are not particularly meaningful. Minor details aside, Mr. Barksdale's letter does not dispute that the plan would still spend at least $700 million in federal taxpayer money to re-route perfectly-functioning CSX rail line as part of a project that has been supported by local developers for decades.
In an effort to determine the facts and assess the progress of the federal effort to assist the citizens of the Gulf Coast, one of the authors of this paper visited the Mississippi coast to meet with state, local and federal officials in the area and with members of the local business community.
All acknowledged that an extreme makeover of the Mississippi coast would soon be under way, and that the likely design direction for the redevelopment would be a New Urbanist fusion of Las Vegas style casinos with Miami Beach condos. To best achieve this, planners, developers and architects believed that the relocation of the CSX freight service and CSX right-of-way were essential in order to provide more tourist-related transportation options, which could include trolleys and/or commuter rail within the former CSX right-of-way. With the exception of one interview, the issue of safety never surfaced, and the one time it did it focused on the hazards confronting cars at the many CSX at-grade crossings. In no meeting, speech or presentation was there any mention the need for more east-west road capacity.
The December 31, 2005 report to the Governor's Commission echoed these same redevelopment themes and goals. Of the report's 12 recommendations included under the section titled "Intermodal Transportation," six were concerned explicitly with trolleys and other forms of public transportation. More to the point, in none of the 12 transportation recommendations did the word "safety" or "evacuation," or any synonym thereof, appear.
Thus it is odd that, in his letter of complaint, Mr. Barksdale is silent on the focus of his twelve recommendations and instead emphasizes goals and topics not covered in the Commission report: safety and evacuation. Moreover, in raising this new and novel justification for the earmark, his safety focus is rather narrow: the ability of evacuees to move relatively short distances east or west in order to access the roads running north to higher ground.
Odder still is that during the pre-Katrina evacuation, Mississippi had no evacuation congestion problems and all who wanted to leave did so expeditiously, in contrast to Texas, with Hurricane Rita, and New Orleans, with Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Barksdale notes that there are only two east-west routes with four lanes, but they and the many existing two-lane east-west roads seemed to be perfectly adequate for the evacuation. If Mississippi officials now believe they are not, then these two lane roads, one of which runs along the CSX tracks, could easily be widened to the desired four lanes at a fraction of the proposed $700 million being sought for the right-of-way. With virtually all of the previously existing structures on the coast now scoured from the land, such road widening would be relatively easy to accomplish at modest cost.
Mr. Barksdale's further claim that the new road would reduce damage in the future by relocating former beachfront businesses to "safer" positions on the new road on the CSX right-of-way is also open to question. As our visit to the area revealed, Katrina damage was extensive up to, and well past, the CSX tracks, and sometimes as deep inland as I-10. Moreover, many along the coast believe that the CSX tracks, which sit about six to eight feet above ground level on a man-made embankment, served as a formidable dike during the hurricane, blunted the storm surge, and saved many a structure and life inland.
Mr. Barksdale's desire to save the $700 million boondoggle from congressional rejection and certain veto is understandable, but these new rationales for the expenditure are as questionable as the original justifications. Notwithstanding his December 2005 report's emphasis on the benefits of re-using the right-of-way for tourism and New Urbanist design opportunities, these attempts to redirect attention from real estate development to safety fall flat. Congress and the President should continue to work toward the elimination of this costly act of corporate welfare from the supplemental.
Brian M. Riedl is Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs, and Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., is Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow, in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.