The Federal government is again offering money it does not have to entice a state (Iowa) to spend money that it does not have on something it does not need. The state of Iowa is being asked to provide funds to match federal funding for a so-called "high speed rail" line from Chicago to Iowa City. The new rail line would simply duplicate service that is already available. Luxury intercity bus service is provided between Iowa City and Chicago twice daily. The luxury buses are equipped with plugs for laptop computers and with free wireless high-speed internet service. Perhaps most surprisingly, the luxury buses make the trip faster than the so-called high speed rail line, at 3:50 hours. The trains would take more than an hour longer (5:00 hours). No one would be able to get to Chicago quicker than now. Only in America does anyone call a train that averages 45 miles per hour "high speed rail."
The state would be required to provide $20 million in subsidies to buy trains and then more to operate the trains, making up the substantial difference between costs and passenger fares. This is despite a fare much higher than the bus fare, likely to be at least $50 (based upon current fares for similar distances). By contrast, the luxury bus service charges a fare of $18.00, and does not require a penny of taxpayer subsidy. Because the luxury bus is commercially viable (read "sustainable"), service can readily be added and funded by passengers. Adding rail service would require even more in subsidies from Iowa. The bus is also more environmentally friendly than the train.
Further, this funding would be just the first step of a faux-high speed rail plan that envisions new intercity trains from Chicago across Iowa to Omaha. In the long run, this could cost the state hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars. Already, a similar line from St. Louis to Chicago has escalated in cost nearly 10 times, after adjustment for inflation, from under $400 million to $4 billion.
Unplanned cost overruns are the rule, rather than the exception in rail projects. European researchers Bent Flyvbjerg, Nils Bruzelius and Werner Rottengather (Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition) and others have shown that new rail projects routinely cost more than planned (Note 1).
Flyvbjerg et al found that the average rail project cost 45 percent more than projected and that 80 percent cost overruns were not unusual. Cost overruns were found to occur in 9 of 10 projects. Further, they found that ridership and passenger fares also often fell short of projections, increasing the need for operating subsidies.
Iowa legislators may well identify ways to spend their scarce tax funding on services that are actually needed.
Note: Flyvbjerg is a professor at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. Bruzelius is an associate professor at the University of Stockholm. Rothengatter is head of the Institute of Economic Policy and Research at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany and has served as president of the World Conference on Transport Research Society (WCTRS), which is perhaps the largest and most prestigious international association of transport academics and professionals.