Republican governors like to strut around like they are the adults in the room, making the painful cuts and decisions needed to balance budgets and propel economies. This lets them portray their policies as somehow rooted in some different and better philosophy of government than their Democratic opponents. But peek under the covers, and you’ll see that all too often these Republicans are just as much big spenders as their Democratic brethren. The only difference is the list of boondoggles they want to waste money on.
Exhibit A is Ohio Governor John Kasich. One of his first acts in office was to strip Cincinnati of $52 million in federal fund allocations for the downtown streetcar project. Not content with a mere administrative decision to defund, a Republican legislator actually introduced a budget amendment to legally prohibit any state allocations for the streetcar. The state’s transport policy committed had previously ranked the streetcar the top project in the state. After Kasich took over, he cancelled it completely from the state’s perspective.
Was this because he wanted to run a tighter fiscal ship? Or put money toward higher cost/benefit projects? No. Look at how he’s actually governed and it’s clear he wanted to cancel projects like the streetcar so he could spend it on his own personal boondoggles.
Kasich’s biggest investment is a $440 million bypass around Portsmouth, a town of 20,000 people. That’s almost $22,000 for every man, woman, and child in town. (Even expand the look to the entire county and there are only 80,000 people). Ask the people of Portsmouth whether they would rather have this road or a check for $22,000 each, and I know where my money is. To put in perspective how crazy this is, remember those $300 stimulus “rebates” from a while back? Even at today’s ridiculously low interest rates, 30 year treasuries are yielding about 3.5%. Invest the $22K per person in treasuries and you could pay them a $750 “stimulus” every year in perpetuity.
Kasich is hardly alone in this category. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ most expensive project was a highway in another state that costs over $100,000 per foot and includes a tunnel that passes only under trees local residents didn’t want to cut down. Daniels also enjoys a high reputation in Republican circles for fiscal rectitude. Though not a governor, it was Republican Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens who championed the original “Bridge to Nowhere”, a $400 million span to an island of 50 people. Kentucky Rep. Hal Stevens, dubbed the “Prince of Pork” by the Lexington Herald-Leader, has single handed kept plans for an I-66 interstate through rural Kentucky that nobody else seems to want alive.
Back to the case at hand, Kasich just goes to show yet again there’s no highway boondoggle big enough that even the most ostensibly fiscally conservative governor is willing to cancel it.
It may well be that this is part of a longer, more strategic route. But with the vast transportation needs in Ohio, it’s tough to imagine this one small town project deserves the most money. And while I’m not the biggest fan of urban streetcars myself (not evil, but not my top priority by any means), at least downtown Cincinnati legitimately has millions of people visiting it every years.
It’s hard to take Kasich seriously as a conservative if this is the type of project he wants to champion. Unlike some urbanists, I like roads. I’m not ashamed to say that we need to build more of them, even some expensive ones. But we ought to at least build ones that make sense, in places where people actually live in numbers commensurate with the money spent, and where there’s a real cost/benefit to be had.
In the meantime, by no means does someone like Kasich deserve to be put in the conservative bucket. Just because someone wants to waste money on a boondoggle you actually like doesn’t make him any less a boongdoggler.