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Trains and political group think

BY ZACH WAHLS | NOVEMBER 03, 2010 7:30 AM

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I have the task of writing the post-election column. On Tuesday, our city, state, and country voted.

A few days out, it seems to be accepted as fact the GOP is going to have had a phenomenally good night. Were he still alive, I would have asked Paul the Psychic Octopus to lend me a hand (or in his case, a tentacle), but he passed on last week. So instead of wasting your time with predictions of how the GOP will govern, I want to talk about trains.

Growing up, I’d been fascinated with trains, and I was more than happy to throw my support behind a train connecting Iowa City to Chicago. And then I went to the Rally to Restore Sanity.

I took a Greyhound out to D.C. I stayed in Fairfax, Va., with some friends, and when we tried to take the Metro into the city, we were told it was over capacity. Way over capacity. This got me thinking.
So I did some quick research. The local Amtrak line at Mount Pleasant was an average of 110 minutes late during the month of October. During my 55-hour journey by Greyhound, I experienced two late buses, at an average of 25 minutes late. The rest weren’t.

All right, I thought — well, at least Amtrak is better for the environment, right?

Nope. Bus services such as Greyhound get 184 passenger miles per gallon, more than double commuter rail, which weighs in at 86 passenger miles per gallon. (And this is the national average. I have a hard time believing the IC-Chicago Amtrak will be as full as East Coast lines.)

But that’s not even the biggest factor. Motorcoaches received 0.3 percent of all federal transportation subsidies. Mass transit and air received 92 percent (55 percent and 37 percent, respectively) of those subsidies.

Eugene Hibbs, the owner of the Iowa City Bus Depot, estimated that for 10 percent of the amount of money being sunk into the train, the state could provide four daily buses exclusively from Iowa City to Chicago, which would make the journey in around four and a half hours. And these aren’t your grandpa’s Greyhounds. These babies would have high-speed wireless, outlets for your laptop and cell phones, first-class-style seating, and even in-bus catering.

And they would be free. That’s right. Free. You wouldn’t have to pay a dime.

(If you kept the buses how they are, you could give out free tickets from IC to Chicago for 200 years.)

By comparison, Amtrak would have two trains per day, would get you to Chicago at the same speed as the Greyhound, have none of the aforementioned amenities, and tickets would cost you more than $50 for a round trip. And did I mention that it’s often really, really late?

Ladies and gentlemen, this is what wasteful government spending looks like.

But trains are sexy. They’re a kind of a retro-future. The technology that forged the modern United States of America that also has the capacity to reshape our nation in the 21st century. And in a lot of places, trains make a lot of sense. But this is Iowa. This is the Midwest. The population density out here is, in case you hadn’t noticed, awfully low. Our highways, while busy, aren’t packed.

Trains connecting Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York City, Baltimore, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Richmond make sense. (Interestingly enough, every single one of those cities is significantly larger than ours …)

A train connecting Iowa City to Chicago does not. Not when there is a readily available, easily upgradeable alternative already in place. However tempting this project may be, it’s not a good idea.

It’s not “21st-century innovation” or “American ingenuity.”

It’s political groupthink.

Someone needs to snap our lawmakers out of it.

Because this is exactly the kind of thinking that got us into this mess. And given Terry Branstad’s refusal to defund this project, I’m not sure last night’s election made much of a difference after all.


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