Friday, March 05, 2010

CPRR & UPRR went broke and consumed millions of taxpayer dollars vs. debt repaid plus government windfall

Hillsdale College Professor Burt Folsom writes that " ... James J. Hill privately financed his Great Northern Railroad–the only transcontinental railroad never to go bankrupt. By contrast, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads–with massive federal aid–both went broke during the 1890s and both consumed millions of taxpayer dollars in financing."

FACT CHECK: As explained by Kyle Wyatt below, the Central Pacific Railroad never went into bankruptcy.

By contrast, our understanding is that the Central and Union Pacific Railroads did not receive government subsidies because the government railroad bonds had to be and were repaid in full with interest, that according to the U.S. Supreme Court the government and the railroads shared equally in the increased value of the land grants, and that the U.S. government got a billion dollar discount on mail and other transportation costs. So although the CPRR spoke of a "subsidy" in their bond prospectus, the net economic result was that the bonds were a repaid loan (not that the railroad wasn't accused of attempting – unsuccessfully – to avoid repaying), the worthless western lands to the extent they were made valuable by the completion of the railroad (much was so arid that it remained worthless), more of the value went to the government and eventual landowners than to the railroad, and the U.S. government received a financial windfall due to the prolonged subsidy that the railroads provided to the U.S. government for its transportation costs as part of the deal to fund the construction.
No government subsides for CPRR or UPRR;
Role of government in railroad financing.

"Railroad Reorganization: Union Pacific." By Stuart Daggett, Ph.D., Harvard Economic Studies, 1908, states on page 256 that: " ... the government debt was paid off in cash ... both principal and interest were paid in full." Regarding the CPRR and Western Pacific RR, Tutorow, p. 1004 reports that final payment to the government was organized by a commission appointed by an 1898 act of congress, determined to be $58,812,715.48 on Feb. 1, 1899, and that the complex transaction was completed on February 1, 1909 when the last of the government debt was duly paid.
Dollars per mile of track;
Railroad Reorganization, 1908.

So which is correct? Did both the CPRR & UPRR go broke and consume millions of taxpayer dollars or was the debt repaid in full plus the U.S. government received a financial windfall due to the prolonged subsidy that the railroads provided to the government for its transportation costs through the mid 20th century?