It’s not uncommon for something to sound wonderful that is ultimately a bad idea — “freemium” games, bacon-wrapped pizza, going to Bourbon Street — the list is endless. It’s easy to get whipped into a frenzy by hype or sexiness and ignore practical realities.
That’s the category to which the oft-debated commuter rail line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge belongs.
Don’t tell Governor Edwards this, lest you rain on his parade. “I am going to do everything I can to partner with folks in Washington to make sure that as soon as possible we can pursue light rail,” Edwards told the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce last December.
“It actually allows us to be a super region,” Edwards continued. “I believe that’s important for our future.”
All of the discussions over the proposed passenger line seem to treat its value as a foregone conclusion, as though no cost-benefit analysis is necessary. It’s policy-making based on gut feelings, not facts and figures. Predictably, it’s also wrong-headed.
As libertarian transit policy researcher Randal O’ Toole recently noted, the initial feasibility study performed on the project yields some lousy numbers. First of all, the rail line would only remove about 2% of traffic from I-10, so forget about relieving congestion. Secondly, the line would require subsidies of approximately $44 per ticket, which is massive.
Perhaps most importantly, the capital costs would be downright obscene. As anybody who has recently ridden on Amtrak can attest, the quality of tracks in the region ranges from awful to hazardous. To make existing tracks capable of handling high-speed commuter trains would cost a staggering $450 million.
Of course, Edwards doesn’t plan on using state tax money to cover this expense. He’s planning on getting the federal government to do it.
The process has already begun. In late January, Edwards announced that he had gotten a commitment of $100 million from the federal Department of Transportation for work on I-10, which would in turn free up $30 million in state money to be used to “study” the commuter rail project between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Alas, even if Edwards does manage to open the spigot of federal dollars to pay capital expenses, the state will still be saddled with the cost of subsidizing operations. Farebox recovery is expected to only be about one-third, leaving the state on the hook for $16 million annually.
With the state’s dreary financial situation, needlessly taking on an additional expense like commuter rail is simply reckless.
Left with the stark reality of high capital costs and overwhelmingly-subsidized operations, rail proponents cite less concrete benefits. Edwards pitches the commuter rail line as necessary for promoting New Orleans and Baton Rouge as some sort of economic “super region,” but it amounts to little more than smoke and mirrors. Ridership projections only suggest about 710 round trips per weekday, which doesn’t suggest a virtual merging of the two cities or a substantive basis for any substantial amount of economic growth.
The real problem here is that the distance between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is simply not far enough to make rail work. Driving or carpooling is easier and allows for greater flexibility; you don’t have to catch a taxi at your destination or brave unreliable public transit. Rail will work better for some commuters, sure, but not many.
Likewise, while many people in New Orleans and Baton Rouge may see themselves taking day trips for leisure or recreation, those types of infrequent trips aren’t going to justify the expense. Besides, I think New Orleans would get the raw end of that particular deal.
If rail were cheap, perhaps we could justifiably fudge the cost-benefit analysis with rosy projections and dubious inputs. That’s not the case. This isn’t a mere trifle; it’s a half a billion dollar boondoggle in the making.
Forging greater links between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is far from a fool’s-errand, but rail isn’t the answer. It isn’t even a palliative for congestion or pollution. It’s a mistake – one we cannot afford to be making, especially at this juncture.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.