End of the Line for River Line Rail

Estimates that Line is worst in country

Dilbert™ creator Scott Adams once drafted a list of fallacies, examples applicable to situations where someone is wrong. Among them was a lampoon of a person foolishly declaring: “We’ve spent millions developing a water powered-pogo-stick. We can’t stop investing now or it will all be wasted.”

South Jersey has its own proverbial “water powered-pogo-stick.” It’s known as the River Line. This 34-mile stretch of light rail from Trenton to Camden, which opened this March, cost taxpayers a whopping $1.1 billion to construct. Cost overruns had more than doubled the initial projected price tag of $450 million, and construction delays pushed back the opening of operations for well over a year.

Now the preliminary ridership numbers have been released, and the picture they paint is grimmer still. A scant 1,500 riders are using the line on an average day, which is approximately one-quarter of NJ Transit’s own projections. This is in spite of the fact that fares were cut to the bone ($1.10 per trip – cheaper than buses) in order to draw in riders.

Incongruously, NJ Transit spokeswoman Janet Hines claims to be “encouraged by the numbers” and hopes to meet projections by year’s end. At this point, few share her optimism.

The reasons for the River Line’s lack of success are manifest. The chosen route is ill-traveled, especially compared to other bottlenecks in the region. Furthermore, the system doesn’t run during later hours when many commuters could use it to return home after seeing concerts at the Tweeter Center. It’s slow, ill-conceived, and has no real built-in ridership base.

As one would expect given these circumstances, an investigation into the selection of the route and the causes of cost overruns has been ongoing for the last fourteen months, with all the finger-pointing that a political investigation entails. Everyone wants to assign blame, but nobody appears focused on the problems at hand.

What has been lost in this whole discussion is the question of whether or not it is wise to continue rail service along the River Line at all. Many seem to feel that South Jersey has no choice but to “make the best of it,” as the Courier-Post once editorialized, and should invest even more money into guiding residential development to enhance ridership.

This view was voiced one year ago by Transportation Commissioner Jaime Fox who, despite being critical of the plan, proclaimed that the state was “determined to make it work.” Since then, NJ Transit has engaged in an expensive marketing campaign for the fledgling rail line, hoping to turn the project around.

Though well-intentioned, this strategy is wrong-headed. The River Line has become what economists refer to as a “sunk cost.” This applies to monies that have already been spent and thus can never be regained. Britain’s Economist defines them as a truism: “What is done cannot be undone.”

Accordingly, investing more money in the River Line is like throwing more money at Adams’ water-powered pogo stick. You can’t redeem the project or justify the investment. You can only waste more money.

And money will be wasted. By its very design, the River Line suffers from a massive operating deficit. It will cost $70 million per year to operate, and fares alone will generate less than five percent of this. In fact, it is estimated that the River Line is the absolute worst-performing rail line in the entire country. This is quite a distinction, considering just how cost-ineffective commuter rail tends to be.

But it isn’t too late to turn away, and it needn’t seem like a total loss. The line itself is hardly useless. The tracks are already being used to haul freight, and can continue in this capacity even after passenger service is discontinued. Additionally, rail cars and other equipment can be liquidated to settle the debt associated with the line’s construction.

Nothing will ever make this right, of course. New Jersey has been scammed, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted due to a combination of incompetence and corruption. New Jersey invested in the water-powered pogo stick, and all they created was a bunch of hopping mad taxpayers.

That much is true: “What is done cannot be undone.” However, it is always possible to stop, appraise the situation, and step back from the brink. You can’t change the past, but you can keep from making the same mistakes in the future.

Owen Courrèges is a research fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation