A Hand in the Till

Herald Progress Ashland VA

The September 28th 2017 edition of the Herald-Progress published an “In My Opinion” by Ragan Phillips. It is re-published here with permission.

To quote Wendell Berry: “…political leaders do not know what we are talking about, and they are without the local affections and allegiances that would permit them to learn what we are talking about.”

The proposed new rail system between Washington and Richmond (DC2RVA) is an example of the consequences of Berry’s quote and, In My Opinion, it represents a tragedy for Hanover County and Ashland. At the end of the day, whenever and wherever this rail system is built, families, farms, friendships and communities will be destroyed.

Congress, along with federal and state governments and all public officials, has a strong ethical duty to American tax -payers. Included in these duties should be:

  • Duty of care
  • Duty of loyalty
  • Duty of impartiality
  • Duty of accountability
  • Duty to preserve the public’s trust in government
    (See Markula Center for Applied Ethics on “Public Officials as Fiduciaries”

This means that our tax dollars should be expended fairly and prudently. It does not mean that one element of industry or, particularly, one entity should be the beneficiary of Federal and Commonwealth expenditures.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) proposes to spend, at the very least, $5 billion for the 123 mile DC2RVA railroad line. The beneficiary of this huge tax-payer funded project is not the Commonwealth, nor the public. Who, then, is the primary beneficiary? The real “winner” is the railroad company, CSX.

Press releases from the DRPT state: “The purpose of this project is to provide a competitive transportation choice in the corridor by increasing intercity passenger rail capacity and improving travel times.” To wit, Amtrak passengers would benefit by reducing the time for the Washington-Richmond trip by twenty minutes. This is “fake news.”

Fact: Upwards of ninety percent (90%) of the railcars that will pass though the Commonwealth on this DC2RVA system will be CSX freight cars.

The DRPT goes on to say this “public transportation” project, will be paid for by “federal, state and local sources.” It happens that those “sources” are our tax dollars. The DPRT fails to advise the public that DC2RVA financially underwrites CSX freight operations.

Subsidizing CSX, an $11 billion revenue corporation with a $3 billion cash flow appears to be CSX’s “hand in the till” brought about by white-shoe lobbyists and elected public officials more interested in re-election than acting for the interest of the citizens whose votes put them in office.

In the meantime, while CSX hauls more freight at a faster pace and adds to their bottom line (and Amtrak passengers save that “critical” twenty minutes) the Commonwealth has numerous real problems experienced by real people whose essential needs have not been met.

Why not authorize these “CSX” railroad funds, certain to be well above the $5 billion preliminary estimate, for needed public investments in the Commonwealth, such as:

  • Affordable housing that would provide the economically disadvantaged with the opportunity for a productive life
  • Or, a real investment in public transportation enabling folks to move between home and work
  • Or, quality pre-school for all children that would offer a path toward future achievement
  • Or, targeted funding for public education, to include better pay for dedicated teachers, smaller class sizes, up-to-date technology, and safe, well-designed facilities

As one example, In the Hanover County Public School system [where the Board of Supervisors has (a) drained over $10 million (well over 10% of county funding for school operations) from the schools in the past six years and (b) removed $50 million in capital funds planned for four 75 year old elementary schools] we need an investment in public education for the 18,000 students. We do not need a multi-billion dollar subsidy for a CSX freight hauling scheme.

If CSX wants this high cost upgrade of their rails, let them make the investment with their corporate resources of equity and from willing providers of debt.
In this case, public officials’ fiduciary duty is quite simple:

Invest our tax dollars to ensure a better Commonwealth…not a better CSX freight line.

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