Run for the Hills! The “Embargo” is A’Comin’

An interesting item was buried on p. 24 of the Sunday, NY Times — an Associated Press Story entitled Alaska Seeks Alternative to Bridge Plan (NY Times, Sep. 23, 2007, at 26). It reports that Alaska has formally decided not to try building the infamous “bridge to nowhere” (actually, between Ketchican and Gravina Island that has 50 inhabitants). Though the “bridge to nowhere” that was to rival the Golden Gate bridge in size, is not about to be built, Alaska gets to keep the quarter of a billion or so that Congress had earlier earmarked for it and is free to spend it any way it wants. Wave bye-bye to your tax money.

The Gravina Island caper is only the latest such event in which gazillions of dollars in public funds have been wasted in the name of creating “public projects,” a process that at times only serves to transfer money from the federal Treasury to the politicians’ local states and districts. If you’re into championship amounts of wasted funds, Boston’s infamous “Big Dig,” an undergound urban freeway system takes the cake. It was originally estimated to cost $2.6 billion, but has so far gone through $14 billion and counting — it has so far produced a system of tunnels that leak and that in one instance suffered a collapse of the ceiling. Your tax money at work.

Here in California, we do our share too. In the 1970s the City of Los Angeles condemned some 17,500 acres in Northern Los Angeles County near Palmdale for a grandly named “Intercontinental” airport. It cost the city some $100 million, which is more like three or four times that amount in today’s dollars. But the “Intercontinental” airport was never built, though a number of small, short-hop local airlines have tried over the years to make a go of its rudimentary airport facilities, only to give up after a while. According to the Los Angeles Times, most of the acquired land has been leased to sheepherders and pistachio growers.

Why didn’t this airport work? Because the city built it in the desert far away from the population centers it was supposed to serve, whithout any mass transit that could efficiently transport the would-be passengers to it.

None of this is news. So why are we going on about it in this blog which centers on eminent domain? We’re glad you asked. The reason is that in condemnation cases, courts regularly refuse to provide genuinely “just” compensation for demonstrable economic — and at times uncontroverted — losses that condemnees suffer when their land is taken, but which the courts deem non-compensable because, as the California Supreme Court once absurdly conceded, it is the duty of courts to keep condemnation awards down or else — are you ready? — an “embargo” on the construction of public works will descend on us. Yes indeed, they said it. With what purports to be a straight face.

Bottom line: if the government has the money to fritter away on “public  projects” that are either never built or are built but fail to generate the promised benefits, it surely has the money to provide full and fair compensation to people who are displaced from their homes, businesses and farms for those projects. The Constitution promises just compensation, not incomplete compensation, and the displaced owners are entitled to receive it. We don’t see any judicial lamentations about imminent bankruptcy when courts award huge amounts of damages in tort cases, and there is no reason why condemnees should be shortchanged when their homes and businesses are taken for public use.

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