Costly trains

A rail project is sold as a congestion reliever, transportation improver and job creator. The process to design, build and fund the thing moves ahead. But then, it turns out that the project will cost much more than anticipated. We’ve heard the story before, but this version comes from the Heartland: The projected cost of a proposed Midwestern network of high-speed trains has more than doubled over the past six years, to $7.7 billion, including about $1.2 billion in Wisconsin alone, a new report shows … When the first cost estimates were released in 1998, the system was projected to cost $3.47 billion, including $849 million in Wisconsin. At that point, the nine state transportation departments were seeking $2.78 billion in federal money to cover 80% of the costs, matched by $690 million from the states. While the proposed 80-20 funding ratio has held steady, the projected price tag for upgrading tracks and buying trains is up 122%, according to a recent revision of the plan. Another common theme is that the higher cost isn’t really anyone’s fault. Things change, after all. In this case, one reason for the cost hike is that planners decided to go for faster and more frequent service. Another reason is that, after more detailed engineering work, planners found the project to be more costly than they suspected. No need to point fingers or assign blame. The taxpayer will simply wait patiently, checkbook in hand, for the final bill.

Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.