Railroads should not be taxpayers’ wards

Railroads should not be taxpayers’ wards

It’s Christmastime again and Pennsylvania state government is busy handing out gifts to the railroad industry.

But limited government “Scrooges” that we are, we are forced to ask this inconvenient question:

Why?

Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf announced the approval of 27 rail freight improvement projects costing $32 million “that will help sustain more than 400 jobs across Pennsylvania.”

As the governor put it in a news release:

“Keeping our extensive rail freight system in good shape is a vital component of creating a sound foundation for Pennsylvania’s economy. These investments underscore our continued commitment in building a world-class infrastructure system that supports the creation of new jobs and our business community.”

But why should taxpayers be yet again tapped to underwrite what should be a function of the private sector?

A state transportation official notes that rail freight “is an important component of Pennsylvania’s transportation network and these investments create opportunities for expansion and job creation.”

Well, yes, it is and, yes, they do. But, being “committed to delivering transportation services that keep people and goods moving and the economy growing in Pennsylvania,” as this same official put it, should not be a function of government.

Rather it should be a function of these private railroads and these private businesses which contract with one another to provide rail service and to move goods.

But, but, but, Wolf says, Pennsylvania, with 67 operating railroads, has more than any other state and the commonwealth’s focus is on working with private rail operators to assist in maintaining and improving the roughly 5,600 miles of freight lines in the state.

Sorry, again, but that’s not a proper function of government. Why should private railroads be allowed to offload their capital costs onto the backs of taxpayers?

The retort of both the subsidizers and those subsidized is that those same taxpayers “benefit.” But taxpayers would benefit more if government stopped being Santa Claus with their money and the railroads took responsibility for their own operational infrastructure.

And we’re hardly talking chump change here.

To wit, Allegheny Valley Railroad Co. is being given $2.9 million to rehabilitate nearly 10 miles of track “to maintain safe rail operations.”

Why?

Then there’s the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway Company. It’s being given $2.3 million to rehabilitate 18 bridges.

Why?

Over in Beaver County, Shell’s coming (and already heavily publicly subsidized ethane “cracker” plant) is being given $3.8 million to construct 10 miles of track from Aliquippa to Monaca “to transport construction materials for Shell’s plant and outbound product from the completed plant.”

Why?

And over in Westmoreland County, its Industrial Development Corp. will be given $1.7 million to rehabilitate approximately 3 miles of track by replacing jointed rail with continuous welded rail.

Again, why?

This list of taxpayers underwriting the capital costs of private railroads and the private businesses they serve goes on and on and on all over the state.

Why, why and why?

The long-running perversion in this industry and many others (and let’s not forget professional sports) forces us to yet again recount the words of Herbert Spencer, the 19th-century classical political theorist, who long ago succinctly delineated the proper sphere of government:

It is “not to regulate commerce; not to educate the people; not to teach religion; not to administer charity; not to make roads and railways; but simply to defend the natural rights of man – to protect person and property – to prevent the aggressions of the powerful upon the week – in word, to administer justice.”

“This is the natural, the original office of a government. It was not intended to do less: it ought not to be allowed to do more,” concluded Spencer, who, by the way, was a mentor to none other than Andrew Carnegie.

Of course, the government almsgivers and the railroad alms receivers will be quick to dismiss the timelessness of Spencer’s foundational views as “old think” or worse.

Perhaps here’s a view both sides should be reminded of, from another 19th-century icon, William Henry Vanderbilt, the businessman and philanthropist:

“The railroads are not run for the benefit of the dear public,” he said to a pair of reporters aboard his special train approaching Chicago in October 1882.

“That cry is all nonsense,” he pointedly noted. “They are built for men who invest their money and expect to get a fair percentage on the same.”

It’s not the business of taxpayers to help guarantee that “fair percentage.” Not then. And not now.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).