States and regions all over the country are developing plans for high-speed or conventional-speed intercity passenger trains. One of the first steps in writing such plans is the “feasibility study.” But the people writing these studies have a curious definition of “feasible.”
Click image to download this business plan. Click here to download technical memoranda behind the plan.
Louisiana Governor John Edwards doesn’t even understand the definition of “light rail.” He asked Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx yesterday for federal funding for light rail between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Or maybe he asked for money for commuter rail; it’s hard to know from the media reports. But Edwards is on the record saying he will do everything he can “to make sure that as soon as possible we can pursue light rail” between the two cities, which are about 80 miles apart on Interstate 10.
No one who understands transit would seriously propose to build light rail–a slow, low-capacity form of strictly urban transit–between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which shows that either Edwards was misquoted or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. What is true is that the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission has hired HNTB to do a so-called feasibility study for intercity passenger service between the Big Easy and the state capital.
Not surprisingly, that study never actually answers, or even attempts to answer, whether such a train is feasible by any standard criteria, such as whether revenues could cover capital and operating costs, or just operating costs, or whether quantifiable benefits exceed costs. Instead, the study focuses mainly on, “How can we sell this clunker of an idea to enough politicians that we can get it funded?” Instead of quantifying benefits, the study relies on slogans like “quality of life,” “attract new business,” and “provide transportation alternatives.”
The technical documents accompanying the study suggest it will cost $448 million to improve track and other infrastructure to run trains 110 miles per hour. Some of the existing track is in such poor shape today that freight trains are limited to 10 miles per hour. Improving such track to support the 110-mile-per-hour trains is likely to cost a lot more than $448 million.
The study proposes initial service of four round trips per day at top speeds of 79 miles per hour, increasing to eight round trips at 110 miles per hour after ten years. The initial fare between the two cities would be $10, rising to $13 ten years after the line opens. What are these numbers based on? Absolutely nothing; the study admits that the revenues at these fares would initially cover only 20 percent of operating costs, rising to about a third in 2023.
The study projects would initially attract 461,000 riders a year, growing to 886,400 after ten years (just how do they imagine they can predict with that degree of precision?). That works out to 178 passengers per train or 1,420 passengers (meaning 710 round trips) per weekday.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation records traffic counts of 40,000 to 60,000 vehicles per day on Interstate 10 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The intercity rail project might get 1,000 of those vehicles off the road, assuming average vehicle occupancies of 1.4. (Actual vehicle occupancies for intercity travel tend to be more than 2, but presumably the people who would switch from driving to the train would be more likely to come from lower-occupancy vehicles.)
In other words, for roughly half a billion dollars, Louisiana’s intercity train might reduce Interstate 10 traffic by 2 percent. Can anyone really believe that this is going to produce enough benefits to justify spending $450 million up front plus $16 million in annual operating subsidies per year?
Remember, all of these numbers are optimistic. Costs are likely to go much higher; ridership lower; and of course after a decade or so traffic counts on I-10 will be higher so rail’s share of traffic will be lower.
Nor does the feasibility study account for the effects of self-driving cars on the transportation picture. The supposed advantage of trains is that passengers can relax or work rather than suffer the stress of driving. But self-driving cars will achieve the same result and will probably be available long before Louisiana improves the track to reach 110-mile-per-hour speeds.
In short, from the taxpayers’ or transportation users’ view, this is a totally infeasible idea. Naturally, HNTB is all for it, since it expects to make money not only from this study but from follow-up work such as project engineering. Politicians are for it because they can generate campaign contributions and other favors by passing out taxpayer dollars. Environmentalists are for it because any transportation dollars not spent on the evil automobile is, to them, a good thing no matter how few people will use the funded alternative.
The real question is whether this idea is politically feasible, and that may depend mostly on who gets elected president this year. Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, is on record in favor of more spending on mass transit (which should alert his supporters that they don’t really know the man as well as they should). Clinton and Sanders, of course, also support more transit spending. Presumably, Cruz and many other Republican candidates don’t.
In the end, cities do these studies so that they will be ready in case Congress or the administration ever open the floodgates to more spending on such projects. Nobody cares whether the projects make sense; all they care about is whether the environmental documentation has ben completed (even if, as in the case of Florida high-speed rail, the environmental statement concluded that the rail line was bad for the environment).
Local taxpayers, however, should oppose governments doing these studies. Not only are the studies themselves a waste of money, some of the profits earned by the consultants are turned into funds for lobbying to build the projects, as was the case with the Columbia River Crossing. From a practical viewpoint, almost all urban and intercity passenger rail projects are a waste of money, so there really isn’t any need to do such studies except for the political need to pass out favors to special interest groups.