Monday, August 3, 2009

Iowa Getting Railroaded?

My three-year-old boy loves his Thomas the Tank Engine train set. I think that all kids (or at least all the boys) go through "the train stage," but they grow out of it. Those who don't outgrow it go into politics.

Iowa Governor Chet Culver, for instance, has been riding around in his own special choo-choo to promote expanded passenger rail service in Iowa. (Republican blogger Krusy Konservative points out that Iowa Interstate Railroad [IAIS] is letting Culver use their train and Culver's I-Jobs program is funding two railroad bridges for IAIS. Quid pro quo?)

Perhaps Culver foresees a future for himself as Iowa's own Sir Topham Hatt [pictured], Thomas' railroad controller. (The resemblance is uncanny.) But unlike the railways on the fictional Isle of Sodor, Culver's railroad plans will cost Iowa taxpayers some very real cash.

Spurring the current interest in rail travel is some $8 billion in federal "stimulus" funds slated to go toward high-speed and intercity passenger rail projects. Governors, at one time proud leaders of sovereign states, are fighting each other to snap up these scraps of borrowed money from beneath the federal table.

The purpose of these funds, according to Obama's Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, is "to coerce people out of their cars," presumably lowering demand for those cars. This at a time when American automakers are being propped up with taxpayer money because their failure would have supposedly catastrophic effects on the U.S. economy. Does Obama's left hand know what the right one is doing?

Another reason is the supposed environmental benefits of rail travel. For the money, however, other means of public transportation are better. Buses average 206.6 passenger-miles per gallon of fuel, while intercity rail (Amtrak) gets 67 passenger-miles per gallon. Buses put out 50 grams of CO2 per passenger-mile while intercity rail puts out 186 grams per passenger-mile. Buses also would not require costly upgrades to the road system.

But back to Culver. He recently signed an agreement with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to coordinate efforts to create passenger rail service from Chicago to Iowa City and Chicago to Dubuque. The necessary track improvements for the Iowa City route alone (not counting station construction) are estimated to cost Iowa about $32.5 million.

But this is an official estimate, which history shows is usually artificially low in order to garner public support for a project (and ridership estimates are usually inflated). Research by Public Interest Institute shows that urban passenger rail projects have averaged about 40% higher than the projected cost. That would put the price about $45.5 million.

It's unclear if the feds will give Iowa that much. Whatever wasn't paid with federal funds would probably be financed with state bonds (debt). There would be even more ongoing costs to Iowa taxpayers. The rail service would be run by that model of efficiency, Amtrak. On the East Coast (where Amtrak "works"), for instance, Amtrack's Boston to DC line LOSES $2.30 per passenger. Its Chicago to Detroit line loses $72 per passenger. States are expected to cover these loses in regional corridors.

The Iowa taxpayer would be adopting Amtrak and subsidizing its riders. According to Public Interest Institute, "the main patrons of high-speed trains will be the wealthy and downtown workers, such as bankers, lawyers, and government officials[...]." The working class will be paying for some affluent suburbanites to feel trendy and eco-friendly while spending their weekend in Chicago.

I have nothing against rail travel per se. If some smart entrepreneurs can figure out a way to provide affordable passenger rail service in Iowa, without hooking the taxpayer up to the milking-machine or putting my unborn grandchildren further in debt to the Chinese, I'd be all for it.

But in the mean time, if Governor Culver feels like joyriding on a train I suggest he head up to Boone Iowa, where he can ride on the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. A non-profit, this railroad is supported by voluntary contributions from Iowans, not taxation and public debt. And if he feels he absolutely must have his own railroad, for just a fraction of that $45.5 million I bet my son would sell him a Thomas & Friends Trackmaster set, slightly used.


  1. I'm sorry to disagree, Ben, but Chet Culver bears way more of a resemblance to Mr. Incredible of the Incredibles than to Mr. Tophamm Hatt.

  2. Please don't make me imagine Governor Culver in tights.


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