Word reaches me that the government is finally planning some stimulus spending. Well good – but how? I seem to remember that we’re kind of broke. We owe all the tax we’ll take during my lifespan fifteen times over or something. I forget the exact figure.
The idea is “off-balance-sheet” investment, as they call it. By this they mean spending that involves as little actual cash as possible. Fine, but I think they might have called it something that sounds less like crooked accounting. It’s not crooked of course. It just means stuff like privatising state assets and awarding public licenses. You know, completely above-board, transparent things like that. And in particular, the “Public-Private Partnership” or PPP, which means getting contractors to do something for private profit that the state normally does for the public good.
Toll roads, in other words. I mean I’m sure there are other possible PPPs apart from toll roads. But none spring to mind.
And one of the biggest such partnership plans touches close to my home: The Gort-Tuam motorway. Yes, you read me right. Those are the words I actually wrote down there. A motorway, from Gort to Tuam. We have built a lot of decent roads in this country in the last decade or so, and I’m sure they all stimulated a great deal of economic activity. We needed them, they were a good investment. But you see what’s happened now, don’t you?
We’ve run out of places to build motorways to.
What puzzles me is how the private partners can hope to make a return on a new faster route between two such non-urgent points. I can only think of one way: They build the motorway over the existing road, giving people who actually have to get from Gort to Tuam (poor benighted souls) little choice except to pay. This is a worrying precedent. If it continues, free roads all over the country will be paved over with new pay-roads; in some cases, right up to our doors (perhaps). This will have the effect of transferring immense amounts of money from the general population to a few wealthy investors, but apparently that is what governments are for now.
When you think about it though, these roads don’t have to make a profit. They don’t have to be completed even. All they have to do is create economic activity. You realise what that is, don’t you. We’ve had it before, during the Famine. Landlords who believed that free food created what the rich like to call a “moral hazard” gave their starving tenants pointless tasks to perform. Sometimes they’d build a mad monument to nothing, a tower in a valley maybe, a brand new ruin. Sometimes, it would be a road.
This is a whole new class of folly: Faster, wider, vastly more pointless. A Famine Freeway, if you will.
- Major roads in Galway and Wexford included in €2bn plan (irishtimes.com)