Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Going off the Rails on this Crazy Train

I don't know why, but a recent article in the Chicago Tribune has become the straw that broke the camel's back in my frustration with wasted government spending. The headline is innocuous enough -- Chicago-to-Moline passenger rail line gets OK, but when you dig deeper, this gets pretty ugly. The U.S. Department of Transportation will kick in $177 million and the State of Illinois will add $45 million. That's over $220 million to add train service from Chicago to Moline, IL. (That's in the Quad Cities if you don't know.)

I think like a lot of government programs, then notion of spending even hundreds of millions of dollars doesn't even register as problematic. But let's break this down.

First, look at the magnitude of the $220 million construction costs. The pre-application capital estimate was $62.9 million. So where's the extra $160 million going to go? For that matter, why was the application for $62.9 million when Amtrak's feasibility study from 2008 showed a need for $22.4 million plus $4.2 million for equipment rehab and $1.05 million for training. Oh, "The BNSF portion of the route... is well-maintained and will not require any rehabilitation work...." That's 110.1 of the 158.6 miles of track. So we've gone from $27.65 million to $62.9 million to over $220 million.

That's appalling. But where does that get us? That gets us a route that will carry in the neighborhood of 180 to 200 round trips each day. (The pre-app seems to put it in the 180 neighborhood while the feasibility seems closer to 200.) That $27.65 million would be an awful lot of money to spend for that, but that's just for construction.

Now let's look at operation costs. The feasibility study has the State of Illinois picking up $5.9 million in operating costs for a train that will take take 3 hrs., 20 mins. from Chicago to Moline. That works out to a whopping $45.14 that the State's paying for each ride. That's a really bad deal. Let's look at some alternatives for January 11, 2012...
  • Greyhound express from Chicago to Davenport, IA (also in the Quad Cities) -- $22 for advanced purchase for a 3-hour ride with 4 departure options.
  • Trailways to Moline -- $36 for 3 hr., 10 min. with 3 departures.
  • Oh, wait -- Amtrak already has service with a connecting bus from Galesburg for $42.25.
If I wasn't so lazy, I'd get a $200 million capital contract, set up a phone and a website so I could take orders, charge the state $43 a ride (for 2-week advanced purchase of course), then book bus tickets. I'd "save" the state and feds a ton of money and make myself a fortune in the process.

So why are we going to put taxpayers nationwide on the hook for a boondoggle that's going to put Illinois taxpayers even further in the hole every year?

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