This money train has few riders

August 20, 2010 10:00AM

Tennessee Center for Policy Research’s Justin Owen warns against spending billions of taxpayer dollars on high-speed rail from Nashville to Atlanta in Friday’s Tennessean. by Justin Owen You know how to tell when people really want something? They are willing to pay full value for it. This holds true for most goods and services, but not for high-speed rail. While calls for laying new track across America are robust, the future riders of these trains are not the ones leading the charge. That’s because there just aren’t that many future rail riders, just like there aren’t that many now. Look at the new cries to build a high-speed train between Atlanta and Chattanooga and eventually on to Nashville. Proponents argue that we need to force people out of their cars by offering them alternative forms of transportation such as train travel. The only problem is that no one wants to pay the full price to climb aboard. That is precisely why those that yearn for rail transit need taxpayers to foot a significant portion of the bill in order to turn their dream into a reality. Unlike most other modes of transportation, rail transit relies heavily on government subsidies. Contrary to the claims of rail transit advocates, subsidies received by other forms of travel pale in comparison to trains. The subsidy per 1,000 passenger miles for rail transit is a whopping $166. Conversely, air travel subsidies are a meager $4.23 for the same passenger miles traveled. Automobile travel actually brings in money, because highway funding received from gasoline taxes paid by automobile drivers is frequently diverted to non-automobile and even non-transportation purposes. In fact, motorists pay the bulk of transit subsidies. About 75 percent of all federal rail transit subsidies come from automobile drivers, with general taxpayers covering the rest. As the facts clearly show, the high cost of rail transit, which most riders refuse to pay themselves, has to come from taxpayers’ pockets even if they are not riding. It’s unsurprising, then, that the Georgia Department of Transportation is seeking $34 million from the federal government to pay for the Atlanta-Chattanooga-Nashville rail line. This is in addition to the $14 million already secured from Washington for the project by U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga. And it’s likely nowhere near the total amount the project will cost taxpayers before the first train ever leaves the station. A good comparison to the Atlanta to Nashville excursion would be Amtrak’s “Lincoln Service” line between Memphis and St. Louis. The 284-mile train ride costs $80 and takes more than seven hours. Driving the same distance would take under four hours, with gas costing less than half the price. Even after heavy subsidies, train ticket prices rival the high cost of flying, while often taking longer to make the trip than driving. Thus, even after millions of taxpayer dollars are dumped into the proposed high-speed rail project, most people will still choose to fly or drive. The main problem with the proposed rail line is that it—like every other rail transit system in America—is based on a “build it and they will come” premise. But unlike in Field of Dreams, Shoeless Joe Jackson won’t be showing up. Nor will anyone else. The few riders that do climb aboard will only do so because their fellow taxpayers will be paying most of their fare. Justin Owen is the acting executive director at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization.