Louisiana’s top Bad Idea Which Will Not Go Away took it on the chin over the weekend as Randal O’Toole, the CATO Institute’s expert on transportation policy, penned a guest column at the Baton Rouge Advocate savaging the idea of a passenger train line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
We’ve addressed the issue here at The Hayride in the past and been no friendlier to it, but O’Toole came armed with the feasibility study prepared for the rail project and applied the study’s numbers to do violence to it.
Based on a feasibility study prepared for this project, trains between New Orleans and Baton Rouge will take less than 2 percent of the cars off Interstate 10 and require subsidies of at least $44 per ticket. This subsidy is so great that taxpayers could just as easily buy a brand-new Toyota Prius every year for anyone who rode the train round trip every weekday.
The study concluded it would take 10 years and cost nearly $450 million to get the tracks in shape to run trains at a top speed of 110-miles per hour (but a much lower average speed). It also found passenger fares would only cover about a third of operating costs, so taxpayers would have to spend an additional $16 million a year subsidizing operations.
Studies like these always are optimistic about costs and ridership. Government-subsidized rail projects have ended up costing an average of 50 percent more than originally projected, carrying an average of 30 percent fewer passengers than projected. But, for the sake of argument, let’s use the study’s numbers.
The study predicts that when completed, the eight round trips per weekday and four on weekends will attract 886,400 passengers per year. That works out to 1,420 people (or 710 round trips) per weekday.
By comparison, the Louisiana Department of Transportation records an average of 50,000 vehicles per day on I-10 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, numbers that are likely to grow significantly in the next few years. Assuming the people taking the train would have otherwise driven in cars with an average of 1.4 people per car, this means the trains will carry less than 2 percent of the traffic between the two cities.
The plan calls for fares of $13 per trip, but these will not come close to covering costs. Rail infrastructure tends to have a 30-year lifespan, and amortizing the project’s capital costs at 3 percent (a typical rate for federal transportation loans) results in a $23 million annualized cost.
Add this to the $16 million operating cost and you get a subsidy of $44 per ticket. This means the annual subsidy for someone who took the train round trip every weekday between New Orleans and Baton Rouge would be nearly $23,000 per year, or roughly the price of a Toyota Prius.
O’Toole also makes the point that train travel can be competitive with auto travel only in corridors between 200 and 600 miles, or from New Orleans to Houston for example. Even then you’d need a lot denser population than you actually have to make it feasible here. An 80-mile corridor is hopelessly short for a project like this; it’s an hour drive from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, and with gasoline prices where they are it’s cheaper to drive than pay $13 for a (heavily-subsidized) train ticket. That’s before you’d need to secure ground transportation once you’re at your destination; assumedly if you’re going from Baton Rouge to New Orleans you’ll be doing something other than hanging around the train station.
The cost of the project is probably much larger even than the study indicates, because none of the existing rail lines will work for it.
Previous pushes to get it off the ground have boasted that the Kansas City Southern line could carry the train if the federal government were to capitalize the improvement of the tracks – particularly KCS’ trestle over the Bonnet Carre spillway. Turns out, as we’re reliably told, KCS has zero interest in doing that deal; its infrastructure improvements are built on a schedule of its own making and not the government’s, and its trestle suits its current needs just fine. And that railroad has a timetable for carrying profitable freight on that line which is quite robust; saddling those tracks with passenger trains making eight round trips per day would cut into the freight timetable. If you think KCS would allow that kind of damage to its bottom line without demanding compensation, think again.
For some reason, there are people who have latched on to this idea with passion. We’re not among them; we regard the squandering of capital built through the productive application of someone’s hard work as a grievous sin. And a sin is what this idea is – those pushing it are guilty.
Thanks to O’Toole for bringing an objective outsider’s perspective. Hopefully his words will shame the Choo Choo Train enthusiasts into abandoning this boondoggle so we can move on.
One item we didn’t get to last week was Jeff Landry’s having grabbed the reins and taken over the appeal in the Kliebert case – which is a lot bigger deal than people are giving it credit for. Here was the press release our new AG put out on Wednesday…
Today, Attorney General Jeff Landry instructed the State’s counsel to proceed with the appeal of Kathy Kliebert, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals v. Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, Inc.; Jane Doe #1; Jane Doe #2; and Jane Doe #3 and to respectfully deny Planned Parenthood’s request for an extension of the briefing delays. As Attorney General, Landry has the Constitutional authority and duty to defend all legal issues and cases in State Government.
“As I decide whether and how to proceed in all of the State’s legal actions begun under previous Governors and Attorneys General, I am making my decisions based on the best interest of Louisiana’s people,” said General Landry. “Today, in this particular case, it is in the best interest of our State’s citizens to protect the integrity of our Medicaid program by pursuing this appeal.”
“Justice is blind; no one, especially not Planned Parenthood, is above the law,” said General Landry. “Planned Parenthood should not receive special treatment. The State will treat them in the same manner as we do all other Medicaid providers.
Why does this matter? Because in the past, Louisiana has always had a go-along, get-along Attorney General. The Billy Gustes, Richard Ieyoubs, Charles Fotis and Buddy Caldwells of the world could largely be counted on not to get involved in policy fights unless they were in lockstep with the governor. But this is a new day. Landry threw down the gauntlet Wednesday that he’s going to operate independently of Gov. John Bel Edwards when he damn well pleases.
That means he’s going to fight for the state’s right to defund Planned Parenthood from its Medicaid program even when the “pro-life” Edwards’ preference would be to let the matter drop.
What else it means could be fairly significant going forward. Needless to say, Landry’s independence could be a sizable problem for Edwards and a potential fly in his ointment on a whole host of issues surrounding Louisiana’s governance.
Last week Baton Rouge managed to get some international publicity, as the Australian news.com.au featured the city in a long article.
About serial killers, unfortunately, and the fact that between five of them some 70 people have died. Which makes Baton Rouge something of the Serial Killer Capitol of the world.
It’s the kind of thing that makes you shriek “Why Us?” but we’ve got to own it.
John Bel Edwards hasn’t broken any campaign promises. Just ask John Bel Edwards.
Seriously. That’s what he’s saying.
Edwards says the proposals he’s made are different than talked about during the election, because the facts are different. He also says these proposals are not what he wanted, but necessary.
“It is time to stop living in a fantasy land, it’s time to stop pretending that things are better than they are. You’re going to see honest budgeting, you’re going to see responsible budgeting from me.”
Edwards says during his campaign the state’s financial situation wasn’t as bad as it is now. He says next fiscal year’s 1.9 billion dollar shortfall does not have an additional dollar accounted for inflation or anything else.
“There is no additional money there to count for merit raises for state employees, there is no money in there for a K-12 finding formula increase. In the strictest sense of the phrase, this is a continuation budget.”
Last week when the Public Affairs Research Council put out their analysis of the budget and roadmap to balancing it, they shaved some $600 million off the deficit by going to a static budget that didn’t include pay raises and so forth. Edwards is now calling PAR liars by alleging his $1.9 billion deficit comes after already doing that.
Without seeing a detailed presentation of what he has, we’re going to side with PAR on this one. Edwards has done little to bolster his credibility on issues of the budget or anything else.
And finally, how not to go on the local news…