Mar 142016
 
Owen Courrèges

Owen Courrèges

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.

  • JimLeemann

    Owen, Owen, don’t you see, this commuter train will serve to transport all the medical doctors, nurses and researchers who cannot afford to live Uptown or anywhere safe in New Orleans from Baton Rouge to the true New Orleans boondoggle – The Medical Corridor. My bet, the so-called Medical Corridor will eventually become a giant condominium complex.

  • ardecila

    This isn’t just about farebox revenue. You also have to consider the economic impact of development around stations, and the associated bump in property and sales taxes.

    I’m sure the Causeway seemed like a similarly foolish investment when it was built. Build a bridge across the widest part of the lake? What a pipe dream! In the end it spurred intense development on the Northshore and in parts of Metairie, and paid returns not just in toll revenues but property tax, sales tax, etc.

    The devil’s in the details here, of course. How often will the train run, how long are the travel times, where are the stations and how are they designed, etc.

  • Owen Courrèges

    ardecila,

    No, government investment in transportation needs to be able moving people around efficiently, not half-baked real estate schemes.

    There is no support whatsoever for the notion that new development will occur simply because you build a transit station. At most, it might reorient development, making it more likely to occur in one location than another. Otherwise, you’re assuming — without basis — that new jobs were created and new people moved in for no other reason than the creation of a commuter rail line. That strikes me as ridiculous, and even if there were some truth to it, you would need to generate a huge economic return to offset the ridiculous capital costs and the ongoing subsidies to operations.

    The Causeway is in no way comparable. It’s over a much shorter distance and accepts a far greater volume of traffic. The ridership projections on this commuter rail project are a small fraction of that. Adjusted for inflation, the Causeway was also originally cheaper.

    The devil here is not in the details, either. No matter how you make this line, it’s going to be a massive money loser and it isn’t going to magically make economic development occur. We know because the feasibility study itself bears this out, and because it’s the same experience had time and time again when rail is built.

  • Phillip

    Owen, the numbers cited by that libertarian are misleading at best. They also do not take into consideration the numerous other benefits of having passenger rail. They also fail to take into consideration the negative effects of increased car traffic, congestion, and pollution, not to mention the massive subsidies for road construction. Both areas are growing and traffic is getting worse. Upgrading a rail line would be orders of magnitude cheaper than trying to add two lanes to the interstate.

    Sure it’s usually an easy drive (although a wreck can easily turn I10 into gridlock), but what about those too old or young to drive, or too poor to afford a car? What about the business person flying into MSY and needing to get work done rather than driving a rental car to Baton Rouge. You’re an attorney, imagine being able to get an hour or two of billable work done when you’d otherwise be focused on driving.

    In particular for New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the benefits of reduced car traffic and parking space needed are huge. Think of all of the folks attending Saints and LSU games (and drinking while there) who would have another option to get home. Not to mention of course all of the festivals, concerts, Mardi Gras etc.

    A train would also link a number of cities to our passenger terminal, boosting connectivity and ridership on Amtrak, Megabus, and Greyhound routes.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Phillip,

      I don’t see how those numbers are misleading. They are what they are, and they come from the government’s feasibility study. That study also definitely did consider the impact on congestion — but it concluded that a commuter rail line would have virtually no impact on congestion. Thus, it wouldn’t affect traffic, pollution, road construction, etc.

      Freeway construction, it should be noted, is overwhelmingly paid for by gasoline taxes. Meanwhile, this commuter line will be completely paid for by taxpayers, and only a third of the operating costs will be covered by fares. Thus, to even talk about subsidies for roads is ridiculous. Commuter rail is much greater money pit relative to the benefits it provides.

      As for those too old or young to drive, they can take the bus. Megabus and Greyhound already offer fairly cheap, daily bus service, and they don’t require massive subsidies. The only thing trains add to the equation is expense. It’s massively wasteful. The same goes for special events — it could all be done more cost-effectively with buses.

      The bottom line is that this has everything to do with a train fetish and nothing to do with providing cost-effective transportation. It’s a boondoggle we can’t afford.

      • Phillip

        Owen, you fell into the very trap that Mr. O’Toole set. He includes an amortized cost of construction and lumps that with the actual operating cost to get his $44 per ticket subsidy figure. In reality the operating cost works out to 16million/886,000=$18 per ticket, so if the ticket price is 13, that means an operating subsidy of $5 per ticket, not $44.

        O’Toole also assumes a top speed of 110mph, while most plans are calling for a more reasonable 80mph – still competitive with cars – cutting the construction expense in half. Typically that expense is shared with the railroad who also benefits by having higher speed limits on its tracks. Not to mention that this money is going to be spent by the federal government, whether in Louisiana or some competing region.

        You mentioned the cities as not being dense. One of the reasons for that is that businesses have been leaving south Louisiana for decades. Nearly every one cites lack of transportation options as a primary reason. Connecting the entire region to the airport with rail and boosting nonstop flights goes a long towards remedying that problem.

        You also mention buses, but you have to admit there is a certain stigma against buses. People prefer trains for a variety of reasons, some logical and others not so much, but the fact is that a train would get a lot more people to leave their cars at home than buses.

        • Owen Courrèges

          Phillip,

          There are a lot of problems with your analysis. First of all, it’s only appropriate to include all the capital expenses, including ongoing maintenance, when calculating the subsidy. Although the federal government will be paying for some of this, it will not be close to all of it, especially the cost of essentially rebuilding the entire line every 30 years or so. Otherwise, you’re just assuming that the train just magically appeared.

          O’Toole also does not misrepresent the operating speed. 110 is only a theoretical top speed that, not the regular speed at which the train will normally operate. The capital costs from the study are accurate, and if anything are probably too conservative.

          As far as density goes, you have the situation completely wrong. Louisiana does not primarily lack density because people and businesses have been leaving (although that is a factor). It has to do more with the fact that most of our development has been post-automobile and is thus not laid out in a highly-dense fashion, unlike the large urban strongholds of the northeast corridor. That’s simply not going to change. We’re not going to become New York or Chicago; at best, if we gain more population, we’ll be more akin to other cities in our region, i.e., not so highly dense that heavy rail transit makes economic sense.

          Your argument against buses is also simply weak. Stigma? Ok, get people around the stigma by subsidizing bus fares instead of needlessly paying for expensive rail service and *still* charging a substantial fare. This would actually help the poor and other people without cars rather than indulging a ridiculous pursuit of “choice” riders who could easily drive instead. That just leads to wasting money by subsidizing the fares of wealthier people.

          Also, stigmas don’t stay around. There was a time when there was a stigma against streetcars and buses were new and sexy. It’s a lousy basis for public policy. The goal should be to transport people in the most cost-effective means possible, not to indulge a fetish for trains.

  • Turlet

    We don’t have the population or the density to make this viable. If we are talking about linking Los Angeles with San Francisco or Las Vegas, or cities on the East Coast, rail could make sense, particularly in cities that have subway systems. This is much closer to the bridge to nowhere pork barrel spending in Alaska. I’d say connect New Orleans with Houston, with Baton Rouge as a stop, but New Orleans spent the last 50+ years going backwards and is no longer prominent enough for this to make sense to the Texans.

    The federal discount doesn’t excuse conspicuous consumption. Medicaid is another example. Louisiana needs drastic spending cuts due to inefficiently spending more per capita than every state in the region, and the governor’s only priorities are: 1. Raising taxes, 2. Spending on expensive solutions to problems that don’t exist. 3. Fighting the legislature. Do we have to waste the next four years with this guy? It’s obvious he’s not cut out for the job.

    Save the monuments.

    • Owen Courrèges

      Turlet,

      Bingo. If both locations were highly dense, linking them via commuter rail might make sense as it does in the northeast. We don’t have that kind of density, so it simply isn’t cost-effective. It’s wasteful.

  • Owen Joyner

    amen owen – this has all the intelligence of the Loyola ave streetcar – govt. waste at its worst – use the money instead to fix streets, lower water bills, pay police

  • G in Uptown

    The most important thing here is the completely unconstitutional spending by the Federal Government for this project.

    Why should tax payers in Seattle or Miami have to subsidize this? Cite 1 mandate on those tax-payers to have a debt in order to build this.

    One can’t. Because it doesn’t exist.

  • Shannon Cravens

    We can’t even manage to keep I-10 open when it rains a lot… I’m filing this under “pipe dream”.