LaHood on Trains: If You Build It, They Will Ride

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood took his rail evangelism on the road to Columbus, Ohio this week, saying: “If you build it, they will come.” A conventional intercity passenger rail service proposal in Ohio is estimated to cost $581 million and require a subsidy of about $35 per train passenger.

According to the Columbus Dispatch:

Although not endorsing Ohio’s bid over 39 other states’, LaHood said passenger rail would be a success here.

“If you build it, they will come,” he said of riders.

“People like to ride trains,” LaHood told The Dispatch editorial board. “You don’t build these trains to travel faster, although you sometimes do.”

He said people could read books, work on their computers, eat and perform other tasks on trains that are difficult or illegal to do while driving.

Secretary LaHood should read the reports from his own agency, or, more specifically, the Federal Transit Administration. In a 2007 “Contractor Performance Assessment Report,” the FTA found that 40 percent of New Starts transit project ridership was below two thirds of the forecast used to justify federal investment. About half were within 80 percent of forecasted ridership or higher. This is an incredibly high “margin of error” and really reflects the dismal performance of most of these projects (the lionshare of which are rail projects). Five were within 10 percent (over or under) of their forecasted ridership. Only one (St. Louis St. Clair rail extension) was significantly over forecasted ridership.

Real-world performance certainly doesn’t support the idea that if cities and states build new rails systems the riders will simply materialize to take advantage of them (even with massive public subsidies).

Of course, most of these projects are intracity rail projects, but intercity train ridership has fared even worse historically.