Toledo and Bust

UPDATE: Surprise! High-Speed Will Cost More than We Were Told

Crain's columnist Greg Hinz tackled Gov. Quinn's pursuit of slightly higher speed rail today, noting -- surprise, surprise -- that initial estimates of the project were laughably low:

According to a preliminary application submitted by the state to the feds this summer, the cost of a "full build-out" of the Chicago-St. Louis line currently is pegged at $2.42 billion. And that doesn't include a needed $108 million for station improvements, another nearly $200 million for sidings and an undetermined amount for equipment.

The initial estimate for the Chicago-St. Louis line? Five hundred million. That's a five fold increase. So in honor of this least surprising bit of news, we've reprised our "Toledo or Bust" post, which explains just why high-speed rail is another government boondoggle and a complete waste of taxpayer dollars.

The real problem in Illinois is not public corruption, a stagnant economy, budget deficits or failing schools. The real problem is that Chicagoans simply can’t get to Toledo fast enough.

In July, Gov. Pat Quinn, flanked by four other Midwest governors and Chicago Mayor Rich Daley, signed an agreement that commits Illinois to working with seven states to get the largest share possible of $8 billion in federal cash to build high-speed rail lines.

Forget the fact that Illinois’ rail infrastructure, specifically our grade crossings, cannot support true high speed rail. Forget the fact that even if we could, the freight congestion in and out of Chicago would preclude it. Perhaps our Governor and legislative leaders should address the freight congestion issue first. Illinois’ transportation failure is costing the state businesses and jobs as freight is an important means by which agribusiness and other businesses get their products to market.

Too late. Gov. Quinn has already committed $400 million of your money as earnest money for high-speed rail from Chicago to St. Louis.

Well, actually it’s more like slightly higher speed rail, since existing Amtrak lines travel at 80 mph, while the “high-speed” rail lines would top out at 110 mph. These are not the Japanese bullet trains you see on TV, but they’ll get you to Missouri about 45 minutes faster—and many billion dollars later.

This isn’t public policy in the transportation arena. This is just like the Simpsons episode, “Marge vs. the Monorail” —minus the funny. In that episode, the town of Springfield is debating how to spend a budget surplus and Marge suggests using the money to rebuild crumbling Main Street. In walks the smooth-talking Lyle Lanley, who convinces – with song and dance -- the good citizens of Springfield on building a monorail instead. Not to give away the ending, but it doesn’t work out so well for Springfield.

Sound similar? It is, except the real-life Springfield isn’t running a budget surplus.

Here’s the choice before us. We can do nothing and let a trip from Chicago to Toledo on Amtrak cost $34 and take about four hours. Or we can bring the President’s vision to life and live in a world where we’re 20 years older, $8 billion poorer (or, more likely, some multiple of $8 billion), and . . . we wind up in Toledo.

Particularly relative to other immediate budgetary and transportation needs in Illinois there is no market demand for this project, so why is it barreling down the tracks?

Because it is a needed distraction for the political class and an opportunity for the entrenched politicians to dole out contracts and favors. This is not how you spur economic activity. That’s how you spur the growth of government. It is important to note that in its nearly 40-year existence Amtrak has never been self-sustaining. Expect government-run, so-called high-speed rail to be a similarly mismanaged money pit in perpetuity.

How you make the requisite investments in our state’s transportation infrastructure is by first properly maintaining what we have—our roads, bridges, mass transit systems, airports and waterways.

With few exceptions, our existing surface, air, and water transportation infrastructure is crumbling. Thanks to former Gov. Blagojevich raiding the state’s road fund for $4.5 billion during his tenure, we have disinvested in the very system that is Illinois’ comparative advantage in the global economy: our transportation infrastructure.

The mentality of pursuing boondoggles like high-speed while our current assets wither away is precisely what has Illinois traveling on the track from the Midwest’s transportation hub to a cautionary tale for the nation: Government making more work for government.

A Proft Administration will make the needed investments to maintain and upgrade our existing transportation infrastructure—surface, air, water—and ensure the equitable distribution of those transportation dollars throughout Illinois.

UPDATE: The New York Times agrees:

Yet the public must be wary every time our leaders decide to spend billions of our tax dollars.

The Government Accountability Office’s comprehensive report on high-speed rail that reminds us that:

While some U.S. corridors have characteristics that suggest economic viability, uncertainty associated with rider and cost estimations and the valuation of public benefits makes it difficult to make such determinations on individual proposals. Research on rider and cost has shown they are often optimistic and the extent that U.S. sponsors quantify and value public benefits vary.

Indeed, the GAO concludes: "High speed rail projects are costly, risky, take years to develop and build, and require substantial up-front public investment as well as potentially long-term operating subsidies."

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