Commentary

Iowa’s Rail Folly

The Des Moines Register has a very interesting and balanced article on high-speed rail plans connecting Iowa City with Chicago. The corridor received a $230 million federal grant to plan, conduct environmental studies, upgrade tracks, and begin overhauling facilities to accomodate upgraded passenger rail service. Rail advocates predict 250,000 passengers per year.

However, as the Register notes, passenger rail service will be a lot slower and cost a lot of money to prop up. The train will take five hours. Yet, the existing Megabus express bus line takes less than four hours, already carries 117,000 riders, will cost less than the rail service, and its operations and rolling stock (buses) are unsubsidized. Airlines take less than an hour and cost between $131 and $363, depending on how much advance notice you have.

So, who’s going to ride the train? Passenger rail would have to literally shift all the riders from unsubsidized megabus to steeply subsidized train service to hit its projections. I have no doubt that this corridor wouldn’t exist without the allure of federal transportation dollars. Based on the numbers, this rail corridor could be the poster child for how passenger rail initiatives have been influenced by optimism bias, overblown expectations, and pork-barrel politics.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.