Warning against a train boondoggle

September 16, 2010 1:32PM

In his monthly column in the Nashville City Paper, Tennessee Center for Policy Research president Justin Owen cautions against spending billions of dollars to build a high-speed rail line between Nashville and Atlanta. by Justin Owen You can always tell when people really want something by their willingness to pay for it. When the price of a product reaches the point where one person would rather have the product than money, she will exchange her money for it with the other person, who would rather have the cash. It appears people don’t want to trade in their cash to park their cars and hop aboard trains. That is, unless taxpayers are throwing in a substantial portion of the cash for them. For instance, mass-transit advocates want to build a high-speed train between Atlanta and Chattanooga, and eventually on to Nashville. Most citizens like these types of ideas, particularly the thought of whizzing from one urban metropolis to another at lightning speed. Unfortunately, those citizens are rarely told the cold, hard facts. If they knew how much it would cost them — even if they never set foot on a train — they would be less enthusiastic. The problem with the proposed Atlanta-Nashville rail line is that train travel is incredibly expensive, and no one will ride for the true cost of the ticket price. People will only ride if taxpayers heavily subsidize the cost. And contrary to the claims of rail advocates, trains receive exponentially more subsides than automobiles or even airlines. For every 1,000 passenger miles traveled, air travel subsidies are $4.23. Conversely, every time someone rides 1,000 miles on a train, taxpayers fork over $166. Automobile travel actually nets money, as highway funding received from gasoline taxes frequently gets rerouted to non-automobile, and in some cases, non-transportation purposes. In fact, motorists cover the costs of most rail transit systems. About 75 percent of all federal rail subsidies come from automobile drivers, with general taxpayers covering the rest. As these facts show, the high cost of rail transit has to come from taxpayers’ pockets. That’s precisely why the Georgia and Tennessee Departments of Transportation have asked the federal government to send down $34 million to pay for the Atlanta-Nashville rail line. U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, who recently lost his bid to become Tennessee’s next governor, has already secured $14 million for the project. When all is said and done, the project will cost more than $5.4 billion, most of which will come from taxpayers, not riders. To get an idea of the inefficiency of the Atlanta to Nashville excursion, take 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 less than four hours, with gas costing half the price (and that’s in a gas-guzzling SUV). Even after heavy subsidies, train ticket prices rival the high cost of flying, while driving takes less time and money. Although a high-speed train would move faster than an Amtrak clunker, most people will still choose to fly or drive. Government should not attempt to falsely engineer consumer demand — it’s like putting the cart before the horse. Every day, people realize that a demand for some good or service exists and then actively seek to supply that demand. We call this the free market. With rail transit, the opposite is true. Government uses taxpayer money to create a supply for which there is little or no demand. The hope is that if they create the supply, demand will surely follow. This “build it and they will come” premise is the main deficiency in the proposed rail line between Nashville and Atlanta. Unlike in Field of Dreams, Shoeless Joe won’t be coming. Nor will anyone else for that matter. Despite it all, taxpayers will still be on the hook for the multi billion-dollar deal. We call this government waste. Justin Owen is the president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization.