Debate Forum Right 11/24/10

Boondoggle Averted

By David H. Landon

David H. Landon

The future of Ohio’s high-speed rail project is back in the news with the election of governor-elect John Kasich. Where Ohio’s current governor, Ted Strickland, has been a strong advocate of the proposed 3C rail system and the $400 million in federal funds pledged to the project, Kasich has declared the rail project dead in Ohio. Kasich plans to pull the plug on Ohio’s part of the Obama administration’s plan to build high-speed rail systems in 13 urban corridors. Facing an $8 billion hole in the next biennial budget, Kasich has wisely chosen to abandon a project that in Ohio would require an ever growing subsidy and would not have accomplished the stated goals of the project: reducing green house gases, reducing traffic congestion and providing a meaningful transportation alternative to Ohioans.

However romantic and urban chic the proposed rail project is to its supporters, the available facts and common sense suggest that this would be another waste of taxpayer dollars at a time when we can least afford it. The problem with the project is in both its funding and in its practicality.

First, let’s state the obvious. Even if this was a well-conceived project, and it’s not, we can’t afford it. We didn’t have $10.5 billion that Obama has already pledged for the project. We borrowed it from China. Admittedly, that amount of money pales in comparison to the trillions of dollars of deficit spending that the Obama administration has undertaken. But unless we want to continue to provide China with enough money to fund their entire military budget through our interest payments, government needs to stop spending more money than it takes in. The project was only deemed viable on the assumption that 80 % of the funding going forward would be provided by the federal government. The federal government is broke. So is Ohio.

The estimates by Amtrak are that the revenues from passenger travel in Ohio would generate annual sales of $12 million dollars. That means that the state of Ohio would need to subsidize the train in the amount of $17 million dollars annually to meet the $29 million operating costs. So we would be borrowing money from China, to be repaid by our grandchildren, to build a rail system that even its proponents suggest would lose $17 million annually.  There is every reason to believe that $17 million would be only a starting point.

The next question is who do they expect will ride the Ohio 3C rail?  The initial plan is four trains, running between Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati with stops in Dayton, Springfield and a few other locations. Two trains in each direction, traveling on existing freight lines would be shared with freight trains at the top end speed of 79 mph. The average speed is somewhere around 50 mph, up from 39 mph, if the latest calculations by ODOT are to be believed. Even at a 50 mph average, it is difficult to call the 3C project a high-speed rail system with a straight face. The initial $400 million would create a rail system on which trains could never run faster than 79 mph, the top speed allowed on Ohio’s aging freight line train tracks. The time for the train to travel from Cincinnati to Cleveland would be almost double the time to make the trip along 1-71 by car. Six hours to get to Cleveland versus four hours. Time is money. This train will not attract business travelers.

Would businessmen use this train to travel along the 3C corridor, racing from Dayton to Columbus, and even on to Cleveland on a slow-speed train?  It’s unlikely.  For a true high-speed rail to be constructed in Ohio, all new tracks would be required. That cost would be in the billions of dollars for the tracks, land acquisition, new bridges and the high-tech system that keeps the trains from colliding.

So who would be the passengers of the estimated 1,300 in daily riders that Amtrak predicts will use the train in the first year? Let’s assume that part of the passengers would be a small number of business travelers who have business near the terminals. Otherwise, the passengers would be students, senior citizens, folks going to and from sporting events, museums and amusement parks, and those individuals who have no car and can take advantage of the train. By the way, are proponents of the 3C rail project seriously arguing that taking 1,300 cars daily off the 260-mile I-71 corridor would have an effect on traffic congestion or green house gases? The reduction would be miniscule. While it would be nice if an alternative travel system existed for this small number of travelers, it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money to spend millions of dollars for this small group at a time of financial crisis.

We need to face the reality of our economic geography. A study by two UCLA economists revealed that migration away from center cities after World War II made most rail travel impractical. According to that study, from 1950 to 2000 the share of the metropolitan population living in central cities fell from 56 percent to 32 percent. Jobs moved along with the population into the suburbs. Business trip origins and destinations are too dispersed to support most rail service. Only in places like Europe and Asia with greater population densities are high-speed rail systems potentially attractive.

This is neither the time nor the correct plan for high-speed rail in Ohio. The supporters of the Ohio 3C rail are claiming public benefits from the development of the rail that don’t exist, while at the same time ignoring costs that do.

David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee.  He can be reached at contactus@daytoncitypaper.com

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