Since the election of Republican Scott Walker for Wisconsin Governor, the hot issue is what is going to happen with the proposed high-speed rail project from Madison to Milwaukee that $810 million in federal stimulus funding would create. One of Walker’s campaign issues was stopping the high-speed rail project, to which he claims is a boondoggle.
But is it a boondoggle, or an actual true quality-of-life generator that will both save the planet, create jobs and save money for the state?
Signs, thus far, do not come anywhere close to the latter, and pointing more to the former. The Antiplanner breaks down the numbers for us using the Department of Transportation’s numbers, along with the subsidies therein to make the rail project a reality, and the numbers are pretty damning:
The proposal does not call for high-speed (faster than 125 mph) or even moderate-speed (faster than 80 mph) rail. Instead, the top speeds will only be 79 mph until even more money is spent improving signaling to allow for “positive train control” (which insures trains will automatically stop when necessary even if the engineer fails to stop the train).
With three stops between Madison and Milwaukee, the average speed will be just 58 mph. That’s a bit higher than the current Badger Bus, which averages 42 to 52 mph depending on which bus you take. But the rail route is longer than the bus route, which means the train will take longer (1 hour 40 minutes) than the fastest bus (1 hour 30 minutes).
In addition, the bus stops in the middle of the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, while current plans call for the train to terminate at Dane County Airport on the edge of town, with transit connections to downtown and the university. This gives even the slower (1 hour 50 minute) buses a huge competitive advantage.
Badger Bus operates on the same frequencies — six round trips per day — as proposed for the rail line. The state’s application estimates that rail fares will range from $20 to $33 compared with current bus fares of $17.50. It appears the state is chasing the snob market, that is, people too proud to ride a bus.
Considering that this is an 81-mile rail route, the price tag of $823 million (a small portion of which will go for improving Chicago-Milwaukee service) is roughly $10 million per mile. This is nearly three times the amount estimated by the Antiplanner for improving service to 110 mph. The high cost is due to the fact that the tracks between Madison and Milwaukee haven’t seen passenger service in many decades and some of them are in very poor shape.
In places like Europe, train infrastructure makes a little more sense because it’s a land that has expensive oil prices, higher population density and had roads built long before the automobile, with some cities having the most dizzying and complex road map one has ever laid eyes on. The time I spent traveling from Paris to Amsterdam was enough for me to see how a rail system is preferred. However, it should also be noted, that while Europe is connected well through rail, the United States is connected better through air and roads. While the airlines are still suffering from government-controlled security and stiff plane ticket taxes, traveling from Chicago to Austin is still faster by air, enough that people will choose to sacrifice any luxury accommodations that both high-speed and light-rail trains could ever possibly offer in order to get to their destination faster.
Recent data from the Pew Research Center’s Subsidyscope site crunched the numbers to see that Amtrak lost $32 per passenger in 2009, with subsidies per passenger on some routes go to the tune of $462.11. That’s a lot of our money a money-losing system that has not been proven to be faster than other forms of transportation. Our legislators insist that when it comes to high-speed rail, “if we build it, they will come.” But that’s putting the caboose before the engine. Our Interstate Highway System was mostly built without subsidies, being funded by either gas taxes and other highway-user fees, some with tolls. Most of our local roads are handled by local and country governments. If the high-speed rail system actually went as far as something similar, passing over most of its expenses to the local citizens the train service effects more, along with having ticket prices fluctuate for higher-demand times while canceling lower-demand departure times to remain financially solvent, then I would certainly change my mind. But such a local, user-driven practice would probably not occur anyway, because politicians are in the business of entitling their citizens with services no one can afford.
To be fair, though, the airline industry is indeed getting a lot of federal money, which has also been causing a lot of problems in the market. Many airlines are pocketing the money while flying almost-empty planes. That is most definitely, just the same as high-speed rail, a waste of taxpayer money. The argument for those subsidies is that citizens from small towns would otherwise have to fly hundreds of miles in order to fly anywhere. Well, I have been born and raised in a small city in Wisconsin, and for the most part, even with a long-standing county airport both in my town and in nearby Green Bay, I often find myself traveling over 100 miles to Milwaukee anyway to save money on tickets, as well as time (a car ride to Milwaukee would equal to about the same time flying there, if one were to include passing by the TSA-controlled security and boarding/de-boarding time).
….Say, maybe if there was a high-speed rail from my town to Milwaukee’s airport? That would be cost effective, wouldn’t it?