Louisiana’s major gubernatorial candidates went off the rails in announcing tepid to more enthusiastic support for commuter train service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, a boondoggle that in its current form would cost state taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year to benefit a small and likely economically advantaged portion of the public.
During a recent forum, the candidates made noises of support for the concept, being spearheaded by a collection of boosters along the projected route. From the backers, constituting a mélange of economic development interests, local governments, planning organizations and lobbying shops, we hear how rail would promote safe travel, economic development, ecological soundness, livable communities and a hurricane evacuation route. Of course, no hard numbers showing how the entire state is significantly better off come with these platitudes, but they sure sound good.
Here’s the reality: The current plan being hawked would cost at least $262.4 million for infrastructure along the route, although the federal government at present could pay for $210 million of this. Additionally, the six participating local governments would spend millions of dollars more on station infrastructure. Worse, Louisiana taxpayers would subsidize the scheme to the tune of at least $6.7 million year at the start, although the advocates cross their fingers and hope that would diminish.
Historically, intercity passenger rail projects have had cost overruns of about 60 to 200 percent and miscalculations of ridership usually under by about 40 percent.
And for this, Louisiana would get two round trips a day at an average speed 20 mph below the interstate highway speed limit for the majority of the journey, carrying an average of 144 people paying $10 a head. Assuming in 20 years a similar amount of infrastructure repair would have to be spent, that the amount of annual passenger miles doesn’t change, and that operating costs and revenue remain the same, in those two decades, state taxpayers would subsidize more than $94 per passenger for each trip (not even including their portion of federal taxes to fund this).
Oh, and there’s no guarantee that the federal government would continue this 80/20 match during the line’s building. Or that Amtrak would lease the trains needed to run it. Or that the two private railroads that own most of the route’s tracks would go for the deal that would disrupt their services. Or that the minimal service when it starts could provide enough critical leverage to develop funding for a future of more trips on a high-speed track.
But all of that aside, why don’t the fans of the project just charge $100 a ticket and obviate the need for a taxpayer subsidy? From 2006 to 2013, in charging about $5 a round trip, with eight trips daily on weekdays, the LA Swift bus service, which had as many stops and far lower operating and infrastructure costs, although slightly slower speeds, could not survive without government subsidies. The promoters of this proposed train line already know that. Their dream dies without the ability to reach into the citizenry’s pocketbooks.
There’s no reason all state residents with their own hard-earned resources should enable a small number of privileged few at their leisure to jet-set along Interstate 10 without spilling their lattes. If the communities along the route want to tax their own constituents to foot the bill for something with few positive spillover effects for the rest of the state, knock yourself out. But they — and the gubernatorial hopefuls — should not fob costs off onto everybody else for something benefiting a few.
CORRECTION: In my previous column, I had written that Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Lottie Beebe had outspent her opponent in the 2011 election. In fact, Beebe’s opponent spent more than she did. I regret the error.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics (www.between-lines.com) and, when the Louisiana Legislature is in session, another about legislation in it (www.laleglog.com). Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.