By Marc Kilmer
Hopping a train and riding from Cincinnati to Cleveland or Columbus certainly seems like a popular idea. Opinion polls show strong support for it, a wide variety of civic organizations are backing it, and people are coming to meetings excited to see the trains roll. All this begs the question, though — if passenger rail is so popular, why do Ohio’s taxpayers need to subsidize almost 60% of its yearly cost?
There is often a difference between what people say and what they actually do. It’s easy to tell a pollster you are in favor of something. That’s an abstract question. But when it comes to actually paying money to achieve that object or otherwise paying a cost for it, many times the actions people take differs from what they tell pollsters. Other priorities take precedence over this objective they supposedly strongly supported.
Passenger rail in Ohio is a perfect example of this. The government agencies and community groups advocating for rail routinely trumpet opinion polls showing the strong support for their position. Amtrak’s recently completed feasibility study of passenger rail in the state, though, shows that this supposedly strong support is an illusion.
Sure, passenger rail supporters claim otherwise. They say that since Amtrak predicts nearly 500,000 people will ride it every year, there is a huge demand for rail service. This number is a bit misleading, though, as it includes people who will make multiple trips a year on the train. As other passenger rail systems have shown, a small number of people make numerous trips. Usually these are higher-income workers who travel between cities for meetings. The vast majority of people who have access to passenger rail never set foot in a train station.
Even if there are 500,000 trips a year on this new service (a dubious proposition), those riding the trains would only do so if someone else paid for most of the cost of their ride. Passenger rail users in Ohio would only pay for 41% of the cost of operating the system. State taxpayers would be paying the rest. If you have a business selling a product for forty-one cents that costs you $1.00 to manufacture, then you don’t really have a product people want.
Of course, the situation gets even worse for passenger rail advocates. Not only would taxpayers be required to pay $17 million a year for a system that costs $29 million a year to operate, they would also be required to fund the system’s start-up costs, which would run close to $500 million. And given the history of rail projects around the nation, it’s almost certain these initial estimates will be exceeded by the actual cost of the project.
Rail enthusiasts claim that of course passenger rail will be subsidized by taxpayers, just like all other transportation is subsidized. What they overlook is that road transportation is almost entirely funded by gas taxes paid by drivers and other vehicle-related revenue such as car registration fees. Air travel receives a subsidy, certainly, but it is less than one cent per passenger mile. Rail, on the other hand, receives twenty-two cents per passenger mile. When it comes to fleecing the taxpayers for transportation subsidies, rail is king.
Ohio’s backers of rail contend that Ohio’s neighbors are proceeding with passenger rail so Ohio shouldn’t be left behind. It’s true that taxpayers in Michigan, Illinois, and other states are subsidizing passenger rail in their states. If these state governments are wasting money, does it mean Ohio should, too? Lawmakers in some of these states are reconsidering their support for passenger rail. Michigan, for instance, is looking to slash rail subsidies and rail ridership is declining. These states would be in a much better fiscal position if they would have never begun rail subsidies in the first place.
Passenger rail may sound good in theory but when it actually comes to paying for it, those who would ride it just aren’t willing to pay its full cost. With Ohio’s budget problems, it makes little sense to ask taxpayers to pay the tickets of the small minority of state residents who would take the train. Any way you look at it, if passenger rail returns to Ohio, only a few Ohioans will use it, but every taxpayer will be taken for a ride.