John Spain’s response to Randal O’Toole’s critique of the proposed New Orleans-Baton Rouge passenger train suggests that Mr. O’Toole’s estimate of a $450 million cost was based on an outdated study, and the real cost would be only $250 million. In fact, they are both the same study.
Spain was describing the first phase of the project, $250 million (actually, $262.4 million plus inflation and cost overruns) for two trains a day running at top speed of 79 mph (which means an average speed of about 50 mph). O’Toole described the final phase, which would cost a total of $447.8 million (plus inflation and overruns) for eight trains a day with a top speed of 110 mph (or average of about 70 mph).
Naturally, Spain’s two trains a day would carry fewer passengers: an estimated 210,000 or an average of 575 a day. That’s not going to relieve congestion on Interstate 10. With so few passengers, the subsidy would be more than $130 per trip. In using the data for the final phase, when the subsidy would be only $44 per trip, O’Toole actually was being generous.
He shouldn’t have bothered. No one at Spain’s Baton Rouge Area Foundation, or the consultants it hired, has asked if anyone would ride these trains. Instead, they just assumed they would fill 60 percent of the seats. Since Amtrak only fills about half its seats, this is highly optimistic.
Also, the cost of negotiating with the three rail companies that own the rights-of-way to the rails, is only touched upon in the 2014 study. As an example of these potential costs to Louisiana taxpayers, in the Denver metro area the cost of a proposed 41-mile line grew several hundred million dollars because of negotiations with only one freight rail company. Several weeks ago, Union Pacific notified the Lone Star Rail District that after six years of negotiations over sharing lines for commuter rail between Georgetown and San Antonio, Texas, they were ending all consideration of future negotiations, stating that the needed alignment and infrastructure changes were “unattainable” and citing their unwillingness to restrain the company’s future growth.
Political consultant Johnny Adriani argues that government subsidized the highways, so it should do the same with trains. However, I-10 and most state roads were built entirely with user fees. Nationwide, highway subsidies average 1.5 cents a passenger mile. The passenger train would be subsidized by people who never use it at a cost of more than $1.50 a passenger mile.
Greyhound runs more than a dozen buses a day between New Orleans and Baton Rouge right now, at fares comparable to those proposed for the train. If Spain and Adriani are only willing to leave behind their cars for a train, why should Louisiana taxpayers give them up to $130 in subsidies each time they do?
Kathleen St. Germain
former assistant director, American Dream Coalition