Railing About Rail

By Ian Aikens | July 31, 2019

The last public hearing I attended in the legislative session in Concord that ended on June 30, 2019 was anything but encouraging. It was regarding SB241, which would authorize funding for the “project development phase” of the capital rail project and extend commuter rail from Boston to either Nashua, Manchester, or Concord (or all 3 cities). For hours I listened to one proponent after another urge the committee members to approve the bill, and I ended up being the sole member of the public to speak in opposition to the bill.

One proponent called it a “no brainer” since 80% of the funding would come from the federal government. Just how a government that is $22,000,000,000,000 (and counting) in the hole has “free” money to dispense was never clarified to the committee members. One committee member asked one of the proponents if inserting the project into the 2019-2028 Ten Year Transportation Improvement Plan (a big black hole) meant that the remaining 20% needed would already be funded. In other words, the money’s already there, so why not spend it? Indeed, placing a costly project in a big black hole with little visibility for the taxpaying public would be great for special interest groups, and that’s how government boondoggles are born. Many of the speakers touted how rail would create jobs and revitalize towns, cut down on traffic congestion, increase business at Manchester Airport, improve the environment, bring tourists to New Hampshire, and keep the young from leaving the state. The only benefit I didn’t hear mentioned was that it would spur the return of the Messiah.

Now let’s take a quick look at the history of rail in this country. It served a practical purpose as the country was developing and spreading across the continent transitioning from horse and buggy and water transportation, but once automobiles and air travel become affordable to the masses, rail transport became outmoded and impractical. Passenger rail was always used more by the elite, and ridership peaked around 1920 and never recovered. Despite the rosy claims of its proponents, virtually every rail project in the country features overestimates of ridership, underestimates of the building costs involved, constant and ongoing taxpayer subsidies, deferred maintenance with incredible backlogs—and a band of highly paid consultants served well by the perpetuation of the myths of rail. Outside of a very densely populated city like New York, and possibly Chicago and San Francisco, rail transit in this day and age is not economically feasible. Planes are faster and less expensive for long distances, and cars and buses are more convenient and less expensive for short distances. A few examples of the dismal record of rail projects from around the country: 1) Nashville’s Music City Star, which began operating in 2006, was requiring a taxpayer subsidy of $28 per ride by 2016; 2) Orlando, Florida’s SunRail, a 32-mile commuter rail line, opened in 2014 to such low ridership that by 2016 the government agency running the line admitted that the fare revenues weren’t enough to even cover the costs of operating and maintaining the ticket machines used to sell tickets to riders; 3) Salt Lake City opened up a commute line north to Ogden in 2008 and another line south to Provo in 2012. Through 2015, the Utah Transit Authority had already spent $2 billion on capital improvements and maintenance of rail lines that carried only 8,330 roundtrips per weekday. That’s a cost of $1,000 per resident, and the actual fares collected covered only 18% of the total transit costs. At losses of $35 million per year, it would actually have been cheaper for the taxpayers to buy every daily roundtrip rider a new Toyota Prius every two years.

Rail doesn’t fare much better when you look elsewhere in the world. France’s first high-speed rail train, which ran from Paris to Lyon, did earn enough operating profits to repay its construction costs by 1992, but later lines built all lost money, and by 2013 the country’s rail program had accumulated debts of over $50 billion. While most people are aware of Japan’s “bullet train,” did you know that the Tokyo-Osaka rail corridor is the only line that has ever been profitable in Japan? The reason for this rare rail success story is because the corridor is extremely high density (about 50 million people) and automobile ownership is low. As the government built new rail lines in lower-density corridors where car ownership was higher, those rail lines were all big money losers for the taxpayers.

Closer to home, the Downeaster provides good historical data to see how rail has worked out locally. The Downeaster, which has been running ten trains daily between Boston and Maine since 2001, makes stops in Exeter, Durham, and Dover. The first thing rail proponents always tout is that rail creates jobs and spurs economic development. A study looking at job growth paired similar cities, as far as access to infrastructure, to see how they fared since the Downeaster started running. Epping was paired with Exeter and Dover with Rochester. After 12 years, the results showed that Exeter had lost 300 jobs, Durham’s total number of jobs was virtually unchanged, and Dover had added just over 1,000 new jobs. The study’s conclusion that having a rail stop in Exeter did nothing to stop the job loss there pointed more to general economic conditions in the area and the nature of local economies (more manufacturing-oriented or service-oriented). The study found that Dover’s impressive job growth had more to do with being a large service center than trains having a stop there because Epping and Concord also saw greater job growth over the same period, and neither city had passenger rail service. The study concurred with what the director of Harvard’s Rappaport Institute had to say in the summary of a study of the MBTA commuter rail system: “The history of commuter rail in Massachusetts suggests that while commuter rail can be helpful, it generally has not revitalized communities or reduced sprawl.”

So, if government is going to be involved in the transportation business, wouldn’t it make more sense to put those tax dollars to better use? And, if the goal is to get more folks to their destinations faster and cheaper, buses are a much better bang for our bucks. The express buses that run along the I-93 corridor move 550,000 people per year for $750,000. Compare that to the Downeaster, which, mind you, is considered a “successful” rail project, and moves 530,000 riders per year for a government subsidy of $8.4 million. Furthermore, with bus lines, changes in employment and development patterns can be adapted to much quicker and economically by adding or subtracting bus lines as needed (or not). The same flexibility will never be there with rail transit.

Looking to the future, rail makes even less sense with the imminent arrival of driverless cars. The new technology will allow elderly and disabled folks to get around so much easier. While this might add to congested highways, the new technology will be able to handle the additional traffic safer and more efficiently due to the reduction of human error. Furthermore, cars are getting cleaner and more environmentally-friendly every year, so we should applaud technology that makes life easier for more folks. Clearly driverless technology will mean even less people will choose to use rail transit.

One would think with the well-publicized rail disaster in California that was supposed to link San Francisco and Los Angeles in two hours that has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars and will never be finished, that should have quelled any enthusiasm for such a project in New Hampshire. But no, I heard at least one rail advocate at the SB241 hearing mention a possible future high-speed rail line between Montreal and Boston as a goal to strive for. With estimated subsidies of $10 per rider to maintain rail service from Boston to Manchester and $60 per rider from Boston to Concord—a price tag of $5.5 million per year—why would anyone think a Montreal to Boston project would turn out any better than the California debacle? I caution readers to consider the words of Willie Brown, the former Speaker of the California State Assembly and former Mayor of San Francisco (a politician I never cared for, but one who occasionally would cut loose with an unusually frank statement of political reality): “News that the Transbay Terminal is something like $300 million over budget should not come as a shock to anyone. We always knew the initial estimate was way under the real cost. Just like we never had a real cost for the Central Subway or the Bay Bridge or any other massive construction project. So get off it. In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

Finally, to end on a positive note, even though SB241 became law on June 6 without the governor’s signature and millions of “free” taxpayer dollars will be spent to study the feasibility of the capital rail project, at least all three of Milton’s state legislators (Abigail Rooney, Peter Hayward, and Jeb Bradley) voted NAY on the upcoming boondoggle. A small glimmer of hope for fiscal sanity!

References:

LegiScan. (2019). NH Legislation | 2019 | Regular Session. Retrieved from legiscan.com/NH/rollcall/SB241/id/805575

O’Toole, Randal. (2018, October). Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need. Retrieved from www.cato.org/events/romance-rails-why-passenger-trains-we-love-are-not-transportation-we-need

Eliott-Trafficante, Josh. (2015, May). Does Commuter Rail Create Jobs? Retrieved from jbartlett.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Does-Commuter-Rail-Create-Jobs

San Francisco Chronicle column, July 28, 2013

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