GUEST COMMENTARY: High-speed rail in Missouri is a ride to fiscal disaster

Tuesday, November 29, 2011 | 2:33 p.m. CST

Did you know that the building of a high-speed rail line across central Missouri will support more than 200,000 jobs, or roughly 800 jobs for every mile of track?

That is right, more than 200,000 jobs. Don’t believe me?

Well, it is right there on page 21 of the Missouri Department of Transportation’s (MoDOT) application for $600 million in high-speed rail federal funding for the planning and engineering phase of what eventually will be an $8 billion project: “The construction phase is estimated to support over 208,674 direct, indirect, and induced jobs.”

If you think it is ludicrous that the construction of a single rail line across central Missouri could account for 7 percent of the state’s entire labor force, well, you are correct. But absurd estimates like this are typical for high-speed rail proposals.

In 2008, California voters approved bonds to support a high-speed rail proposal that was estimated to cost $43 billion. Now, before any construction has started, the cost is estimated at $98 billion. Seriously, though, what is $55 billion when you are talking about the ability to ride a fast train?

But back to MoDOT. In their defense (although this hardly qualifies as a “defense”), MoDOT officials did not put much original thought into the 208,000 jobs projection.

They just applied a federal transportation department formula to the estimated $8 billion cost of the project and came out with that figure. Never mind that the formula counts the same job multiple times, assumes that every job in transportation “induces” two jobs elsewhere and has been thoroughly discredited.

What matters is that the number sounds great.

There are other outlandish claims in the same document. On page 10, we learn that Missouri residents will use high-speed rail to commute to work.

Even though the new system will just go 110 mph at its peak (not dramatically faster than the current system); will only stop in St. Louis, Kansas City, and perhaps Jefferson City; and a trip across the state will still take four hours at best, Missouri residents will apparently use it to commute to work each day.

On page 21, we get a detailed account of the supposed environmental benefits of high-speed rail but absolutely no consideration to the environmental harms of an unnecessary $8 billion construction project. This is an example of government seeing all benefits, and no costs.

The proposed high-speed rail line will connect Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City, and likely the two state capitals in between. Other than people who are terrified to fly, please find me someone in Kansas City who is going to take high-speed rail to Chicago — which will still take about 8 hours — when they can fly there on Southwest Airlines for approximately the same price in 1 hour and 20 minutes?

Megabus and similar companies are perfectly capable of serving existing inter-city travel needs without public tax dollars.

For example, if you wanted to buy a ticket Nov. 29 to take the Megabus Nov. 30 from St. Louis to Kansas City, it would take 4 1/2 hours and cost $43 (often less via promotions). That $43 is less than Amtrak is likely to charge for high-speed rail service and exists now without spending $8 billion on construction and millions more each year on subsidies.

If your mission is to ensure people have safe and affordable travel options, mission accomplished. If your true mission is to spend government money in pursuit of political aims, I guess it isn’t.

High-speed rail is a high-cost luxury built to serve a demand that does not exist. Like many other large transit projects, the price for it is so high that advocates can only generate support by intentionally underestimating the cost and downplaying the future subsidies.

California officials deserve credit for their more honest cost revision of $98 billion, but they are still claiming that high-speed rail will not require a subsidy once it is operating.

The large majority of high-speed rail systems around the world require a subsidy, and California will not be any different. The few systems that do break even connect some of the most heavily populated parts of the world.

Considering that California is intentionally starting its system by connecting Fresno and Bakersfield — some of the less-populated parts of the state — the assertion that it will break even is dizzying.

Missouri would be much better off sticking with its original plan to spend far less money making smart, engineering-based upgrades to our current passenger rail system.

The market demand for high-speed rail is a myth. The private sector is perfectly capable of providing affordable and safe inter-city travel via buses. The amount of jobs high-speed rail creates is false and misleading.

St. Louis and Kansas City are not Tokyo or New York, and the $8 billion project would require enormous annual operating subsidies in the future.

This proposal is a high-speed path to fiscal disaster.

David Stokes is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri Public Policy.

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Richard Saunders November 29, 2011 | 3:21 p.m.

Reading this reminds me of another recent boondoggle, the YouZeum, which had visitor projections of 200 people per hour, while the reality was more like 2500 a month. Of course, they didn't do the math down to the hour, as the absurdity would be obvious, so they did an annual projection of 60000 a year to lose people with the large numbers.

(Report Comment)
Willie Green November 29, 2011 | 3:31 p.m.

So they estimated that it would benefit 7% of Missouri's workforce?

Is that all?

I would've guessed that it would be much higher than that.

Don't you know that having access to efficient transportation spurs economic development and benefits the entire state? Business commuters enjoy lower traveling costs than airline fares between St. Louis and Kansas City.

If you analysts at the "Show-Me Institute" want to have any credibility with the broader business community, you better start representing somebody besides the Fossil Fuel Lobby. As far as my business is concerned, they're just another supplier trying to sell me something that I don't need: high priced fuel. I'd much rather just pay my taxes, have access to efficient transportation for my business purposes, and politely show the fossil fuel vendors the door.

Besides, my customers also need efficient passenger rail transportation so they can afford to buy my products and services. Where are they going to get money to spend if they're putting it all into the gas pump?

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 29, 2011 | 4:04 p.m.

If job creation is such a key aspect of this project, why not have the tracks, ties and ballast transported by ox cart and laid by hand? There are plenty such opportunities to make construction as labor-intensive as possible.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders November 29, 2011 | 4:54 p.m.

Willie, the whole point of this article is the reality that high-speed rail is not an efficient mode of transportation, but that it is inefficient, requiring subsidies, meaning that all of us have less to spend on everything else.

All you're doing is impoverishing us all, while pretending to do "good."

(Report Comment)
John Schultz November 29, 2011 | 7:57 p.m.

Willie, you need to read the article again. The 7% figure that David Stokes calculated was the percentage of jobs in Missouri that MODOT's study alleges would be created by high-speed rail, not the percentage of jobs that might be enhanced by its existence.

(Report Comment)
frank christian November 29, 2011 | 9:08 p.m.

Check out the Chinese Gov't (comparable to California State Gov't)on hi-speed rail. As I recall reading, they built fast rail for passenger service, thus removing passenger cars from regular rail, thus providing the ability to move more freight over regular rail. Cost of fast rail has exceeded any and all expectations and price of a ticket has exceeded any expectation of the average Chinese citizen to be able to afford to pay for one. Why don't We allow our Government to think for us - or do we?

(Report Comment)
Jim Loomis November 29, 2011 | 9:12 p.m.

It's s-o-o-o easy to mock something and blow it off just by sneering that "it's a boondoggle". No further thinking required. But the fact is -- that's f-a-c-t, FACT! -- high-speed rail has been a proven success all across Europe and Japan for more than 30 years, with new routes being constantly added. It's fast, efficient, non-polluting and hugely popular with ordinary working folks who prefer the train to other transportation modes. In the meantime, think about this: New highways built in typical urban areas cost as much as $75 million per mile, per lane. That's $450 million a mile for a six lane highway. The point, you see, is that rail is not only oroven, in the long run, it's also cheaper! But, of course, it's a boondoggle, isn't it. Besides, we're so much smarter than all them there Yur-o-pee-uns, aren't we!

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle November 29, 2011 | 9:41 p.m.

The US idea of "High Speed" rail, 110MPH, is a joke. I like the idea of rail travel for energy efficiency, and it works for freight quite well as it exists now. Even though I've posited that time isn't worth so much money anymore, and today Energy is Money, people's time still has some nominal value. High speed rail is worthless until it's a direct competitor to air travel. The last time I rode a train, it was competing with air travel in terms of the cost and security hassle, but without any of the time benefits. I was *extremely* unimpressed.

We already have all the infrastructure for air and ground transportation, and busses are reasonably efficient ground transportation in energy used per passenger mile. Plus, they're a lot more flexible in terms of timing and destinations than rail.

I'd still like to see research and development of a true high-speed magneplane line; we're talking 300+mph with that technology. If you could do it without the irrational, overblown security hassles, it could compete with air travel in terms of speed *and* be energy efficient enough to run on solar power.

To sum it up, if we're talking high speed rail, we either need to go big, or go home. Anything in between, like a cheesy 110mph line, is going to be a waste.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks November 29, 2011 | 10:35 p.m.

Good points Derrick, I could never understand why the media allows this govt types to get away with using "high speed rail" when referring to the US. I found it odd that even the president would call for a big push for it yet never once mentions that the current high speed train that Amtrak currently operates averages 64mph on this 3.5hr days trips.
All this stimulus money wanting to be spend to create rails that can possible reach as high as 90mph.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 29, 2011 | 11:03 p.m.

Re-Rail Katy Trail!

(Ozark Haiku)

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 30, 2011 | 5:49 a.m.

Numbers aside, trying to apply a concept that works well one place (Japan) to any old venue is a ticket to disaster. I don't personally have experience with the Japanese rail system but my family does. Ridership of their system is high, and the alternative of driving any significant part of the length of the Japanese main island is time-consuming and daunting. So what do we have here? A relatively flat super highway (except for the Loutre River valley) running from Kansas City to St. Louis. The price of motor fuel would have to be much higher to entice significant numbers of people to ride a train. (After you get to your rail destination you might need to take a cab to your final destination. Priced cab fares lately?)

Old Ozark saying: What we don't have is always better than what we've got.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 30, 2011 | 7:13 a.m.

Jim, I'm a railfan, just like you. But I also realize that America -- especially the Midwest -- lacks the population density and fuel prices necessary to make rail an attractive transportation option for more than a tiny fraction of the population. High-speed rail is a nonstarter here. Get over it.

(Report Comment)
frank christian November 30, 2011 | 7:59 a.m.

"Besides, we're so much smarter than all them there Yur-o-pee-uns, aren't we!"

No we are not. We have built, for ourselves, the same box of socialism sticks, that they are in. Their lids are a little tighter. At the moment.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 30, 2011 | 8:21 a.m.

Forgot to mention that Americans own more automobiles per capita than Japanese do. Hard to drive somewhere when you have no car, so excellent incentive for taking the train. I'm told one of the largest problems with automobile ownership in Japan is having a place to KEEP one when not using it.

Speaking of transportation, why does it cost as much to take a cab from the West Broadway Walmart to Portland Drive on the east side of Columbia as it does to take a cab from William P. Hobby Airport in Houston to Webster, Texas (NASA area), even though the Columbia cab uses I-70 as part of its route?

[I can expense the ride to Webster.]

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock November 30, 2011 | 11:22 a.m.

Population of Japan 127.5 mil population of Missouri 6 mi and IL 13 mil. That is why it works in Japan not to mention the other facts listed.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 30, 2011 | 11:31 a.m.

Population density is even more important for all types of rail (high-speed, commuter, light, trolley). For example, the U.S. has 83 people per square mile, while Japan has 873 and the U.K. has 656:

(Report Comment)

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