To Cut Just 30 Minutes Off 5.5 Hour Det-Chicago Train Trip, Michigan To Spend $336.5M Dollars
by P.D. Lesko
Turning down federal money for rail projects has been a point of honor for Republican governors. New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie did it. Scott Walker, who is soon to face a recall vote, did it in Wisconsin. John Kasich turned down money for Ohio. According to a December 2010 piece in the Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood rescinded nearly $1.2 billion that had been allocated to Wisconsin and Ohio for new train lines. Wisconsin, which received $810 million for a passenger train between Madison and Milwaukee, will have to forfeit the entire amount. Ohio must give up $385 million of the $400 million allocated for a train connecting Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.” Florida’s Rick Scott, a Tea Party darling, rejected $2.4 billion in federal money to fund a connection between Tampa and Orlando.
The logic behind the governors’ refusals is simple. Once built, their states wouldn’t have money to operate the train systems. It’s kinda like someone offers to buy you a mega-yacht, then wants you to operate the yacht on your $70,000 per salary. The fact that it can cost upwards of $750,000 per year to fuel a yacht becomes your problem.
A study conducted by MDOT officials concluded that it would cost upwards of $70,000 per rider to operate a commuter line between Detroit and Ann Arbor. In case you’re wondering, that’s a yacht-sized cost per rider that resulted in MDOT putting the brakes on funding commuter rail between Detroit and Ann Arbor. Alas, MDOT’s research has not stopped Ann Arbor’s feckless mayor and City Council from throwing away millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money away on water and sewer and road improvements to support what they’re calling a multi-modal facility on Fuller Road that, in their Tokyo-sized fantasies, will be a train station for Amtrak and bring tens of thousands of people flocking to a small Midwestern town.
The president has allocated nearly $11 billion on high-speed rail expansion since taking office, including $8 billion in the 2009 economic stimulus package. The White House proposed spending $53 billion over the next six years. The idea is that the feds built it and the states fund it. So far, the governors of New Jersey, Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida aren’t down with that program.
In Michigan, Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s administration quickly applied for the sloppy seconds in train funding turned down by his fellow Republicans, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood awarded $196.5 million to the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) for track and signal improvements between Detroit and Kalamazoo. The improvements would allow for speeds up to 110 mph on 77 percent of Amtrak’s Wolverine and Blue Water service between Detroit and Chicago.
The result will be a 30 minute travel time reduction between those destinations.Yeah, you read that right: 30 minutes.
Anyone who has ridden the Detroit to Chicago Wolverine or Blue Water trains knows that the trip can take much longer than scheduled. There have been horror stories galore. In 2008, it took 15 hours for an Amtrak train to travel 170 miles between Chicago and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Granted, in October MDOT spent $140 million dollars to purchase a 135 mile segment of track between Kalamazoo and Dearborn. The government buzz is that the purchase of the tracks will result in improved passenger service, ensure capacity for freight operations through double tracking on the busiest freight segment and deliver long-term economic benefits to Michigan.
That brings the total up to $336.5 million dollars to shave 30 minutes off of a 5.5 hour trip between Detroit and Chicago. That means state and federal officials have decided to blow $11.2 million dollars for every one of the 30 minutes of travel that, they hope, will be shaved off the trip between Detroit and Chicago. Yeah, you read that right, too. Politicos are blowing $336.5 million dollars to shave 30 minutes off of a 5.5 hour train trip between Detroit and Chicago. Seriously?
Maybe because the Detroit to Chicago high speed rail project is a $336.5 million dollar boondoggle, the political hype is hot and heavy.
Secretary LaHood, who recently announced he was not planning to serve another term, told reporters, “This is an important investment that will reduce travel time, improve reliability and on-time performance, and attract more passengers. We are creating jobs in Michigan, building our rails with American-made materials and growing the regional economy.”
Governor Snyder described the impact the $196.5 million dollars in federal money will have in typical grandiose Snyderspin, “Investing in rail service will spark economic development in communities along a corridor linking Detroit and Chicago, two vital Midwest cities. A faster, reliable passenger rail system is a priority for younger generations and vital to Michigan’s ability to compete globally as businesses look to locate or expand. The rail improvements will also hasten the transport of freight, a priority for Ford Motor Company and other Michigan businesses along the route.”
Faster? The 30 minutes saved is a 9 percent decrease in the total time it takes to make the train trip, provided the trains leave and arrive on schedule. Will they? Snyder claims the improvements will result in a “reliable passenger system.” In fact, despite the fact that Amtrak ridership is up by 44 percent since 2000, and that 2010 was a banner year with 30,000,000 people taking the train, reliability is not Amtrak’s strong suit, and neither is customer service. Over the last 12 months, according to Amtrak data, the on time performance for the Michigan services between Detroit and Chicago has been only 25.8 percent. Again according to data from Amtrak, there is one train that runs the Detroit to Chicago route that has an abysmal 4 percent on time performance record.
The United States obviously needs to spend on infrastructure and transportation. However, if this Detroit to Chicago “high speed rail” initiative is indicative of the results we can expect in exchange for the $11 billion dollars being allocated by the federal government and spent by state officials, taxpayers should be absolutely outraged.
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