The Outstater: Passenger Rail and the Mencken Axiom

December 21, 2016

“No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” — H.L. Mencken

by Craig Ladwig

Don’t get me wrong, I love railroads. I have the best memories of the grand and bustling lobbies of the metropolitan stations, commuting to college on the iconic Santa Fe with stewards serving us underage in the lounge car, returning from Vietnam and riding home on one of the last California Zephyrs, having vowed to never again fly in a government aircraft.

But please, there is a difference between nostalgia and anachronism. Don’t burden my community with one of your subsidized dreams of a return to passenger rail transportation. It is a boondoggle. It doesn’t work, or at least not in the ways claimed.

The only substantial aspect of such projects is the full-color architectural image that they roll out for the initial press conference. The one in my morning paper depicted a couple of serious-looking businessmen debarking from a bright and shiny new red train right out of Christmas Morning. Here is the accompanying pitch:

“Ultimately, the service could link 100 Midwest cities (including Fort Wayne and Lima, Ohio) with comfortable, dependable train service through a network of rail lines now being envisioned at the federal level – something that proponents touted as boosting regional economic development and opening the region’s residents to more accessible opportunities for international air travel.”

But Randal O’Toole, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and an expert on transportation, has crunched the numbers. Even the New York City subway, he notes in “The Worst of Both: The Rise of High-Cost, Low-Capacity Rail Transit,” does not collect enough fares to cover half the costs of operations and maintenance, much less its renovation or initial construction.

“Building new rail transit lines, at least in the Americas, is almost always a mistake,” O’Toole concludes. “Putting the same amount of money to use in relieving congestion for everyone by undertaking such projects as coordinating traffic signals and building high-occupancy toll lanes adjacent to crowded highways would produce far greater benefits. Alternatively, providing the same transit capacity with buses instead of trains would cost far less.”

But that’s no fun — not when you can offer local mayors and councilmen the chance to play railroad tycoon, letting out big contracts, building train stations and meeting with the high-toned architects, lawyers and accountants necessary to construct a framework of political rationale.

And such boosters were in full voice as the outgoing Obama administration, after two decades of navel-gazing by transportation bureaucrats, gave approval this week for something called an “Alternatives Analysis and Public Involvement Process.” The process is supposed to evaluate the efficacy of the rail system. O’Toole, however, sees that as a ruse:

“Congress requires transit agencies to evaluate cost-effectiveness as a part of the process of seeking federal funding for new rail transit projects. However, the Obama administration has rewritten the already-weak cost-effectiveness rules to allow agencies to avoid considering buses as an alternative to rails when they evaluate cost-effectiveness — meaning they won’t evaluate it at all.”

No matter, it will serve that ever-so-subjective god of crony capitalism, economic development. One of the more expansive mayors along the proposed route sees the new rail service making his city a “destination” and a tourist attraction. And the executive director of one of the promotional groups asks us to imagine that we are an executive from Frankfort, Germany, and can fly to Chicago and get on a train to Fort Wayne and, we are left to assume, spread wealth and jobs throughout the city like some sort of eco-devo Santa Claus.

Funding? We don’t need to worry our pretty little heads about that. A Fort Wayne city councilman thinks the new line will serve as many as 2 million people annually and be self-sustaining in three to five years. In fact, he promises it will be free, generating $1.70 for every dollar in investment.

Let us hope that Mr. Mencken’s axiom is wrong in this case.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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