“Scranton,” the Boondoggle City.

Today’s New York Times carries a front-page story about the decline of the City of Scranton, Pennsylvania, another American urban basket case that is on the verge of bankruptcy which appears unavoidable because in response to its steady decline, it has been raising taxes, raising taxes, and raising taxes. The problem with that approach, however, is that the city’s impoverished inhabitants are unable to keep up with the ongoing tax increases, and tend to vote with their feet, particularly when the local venue does not have much to offer for the tax buck. So they move out of town or out of state, to places where the grass is greener and the taxes lower. And who can blame them?

“The taxes [in Scranton] are especially egregious to some because so many of the city’s residents are elderly and living on fixed incomes. The median household income in Scranton is$37,000, and nearly one-fifth of residents live below the poverty line.” Alana Semuels, Bankruptcy Is Welcome Here, L.A. Times, Jan. 11, 2014, at p. A1, A10.

All of this sounds familiar so we won’t dwell on Scranton’s current comdition — you can (and should) read that L.A. Times article for yourself. What this post is about, however, is to remind you that Scranton has been the home of one of the biggest, most sneaky, underhanded multi-million dollar federal boondoggles that has not received the publicity  it deserves, and  since it took place around 1990 even the few people who knew about it at the time have forgotten what happened, or have passed from the scene.

Long story short, according to Wikipedia, there was a private collection of steam locomotives up in Vermont. It was originally owned by a local seafood magnate who ran it as a hobby. Alas, it was an expensive hobby and in time, faced with grim financial times in Vermont, it was moved to — ta, da! — Scranton, Pennsylvania. There it was adopted by a local senior congressman who loved old choo-choo trains and decided to stick your generous Uncle Sam with the tab. So over the protest of the National Park Service which wanted no part of this boondoggle, which the New York Timed called editorially “[a] second-rate collection of trains on a third-rate site” (Editorial, N.Y. Times, Dec. 17, 1991) Steamtown came into being after being crammed down the throat of the National Park Service which thought it was a boondoggle and wanted no part of it.

It turned out to be a familiar story. The attendance declined with time, and Uncle Sam by degrees lost his appetite for financing this boondoggle. So far, we have not been able to find the total cost of this caper, or the current annual cost of running it, but it had to be in the tens of millions of dollars. Most of that money came from Uncle Sam, but a lot of it came from local taxpayers. So we aren’t able to say that the creation of Steamtown eventually pushed (or is pushing) Scranton over the fiscal cliff, but it seems clear that it didn’t help  matters any. So if and when the seemingly inevitable bankruptcy is filed by Scranton, do reflect of the Steamtown caper and on how much good could have been done with all that money, had it been spent constructively, instead of being frittered away to feed the personal whim of a powerful congressman.

Last but not least, don’t for a moment think that we are one of those neo-technophobes. In his misspent youth your faithful servant was a mechanical  engineer, and though the  specific field in which he worked was large rocket engines, he loved (and still loves) old machinery in general, and old trains in particular. So it’s nothing personal. It’s just that people who would like to have a collection of steam locomotives, should pay for it and not foist its cost on the abused taxpayers.

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