Many downsides of IC-Chicago passenger rail route


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The beloved children's story "The little engine that could" is a tale of perseverance and spunk, used to teach children that if they keep trying, they will eventually succeed. As adults, we know that sometimes we don't.

The federal government recently awarded initial funding to Illinois and Iowa for passenger rail service between Iowa City and Chicago. The federal government is trillions of dollars in debt, and Iowa and Illinois are fighting to balance their budgets. Accordingly, it is appropriate to ask if this is a wise use of taxpayer dollars.

The initial appropriations for the "Green Line" total $230 million, with a $21 million match required from Iowa and $45 million from Illinois. The annual operating subsidy required by Iowa alone will be more than $3 million.

Proponents of passenger rail service tout the potential ease of travel, low ticket costs, environmental impact, student use, and romance. Opponents counter with the history of schedule delays, inconvenience, inflated ridership estimates, cost overruns, and continued subsidies. Both are convinced they are correct. Business people know that pro forma estimate numbers are rarely accurate. This leads to the review of current, real data, from a comparable situation.

The Amtrak "Blue Water" line runs between Chicago and Port Huron, Mich. It stops in East Lansing, home of Michigan State University, a Big Ten university with more than 41,000 students. Lansing, next door, is the state capital. The population of both towns is approximately 246,000, and the Metropolitan Statistical Area is slightly more than 450,000.

In comparison, the University of Iowa has slightly more than 30,300 students. The 2009 Johnson County population estimate is 131,000 (Metropolitan Statistical Area of 147,000). Iowa City is not the state capital. On all three factors, Iowa City comes up short — it has fewer students, a smaller total population, and is not the state capital.

However, the distance from Chicago is exactly the same: 220 miles by car. Both towns have easy access to an airport; both have bus service. This makes for an ideal comparison of train, car, plane, and bus transportation options.

The Blue Water runs one train a day between East Lansing and Chicago's Union Station. Demand doesn't support more. The weekday cost is $48; weekend is $60. Future Iowa City-to-Chicago service is estimated at $75, with two daily runs. Buses run from Iowa City to Chicago twice daily, four from East Lansing — both cost basically the same. The cost of an advance purchase airfare from Capital Region International Airport to O'Hare International is $378, comparable with the cost of flying from Cedar Rapids; each has numerous daily flights.

How many people ride the Blue Water train into Chicago? Total boardings and de-boardings at the East Lansing Station were 58,529 for fiscal 2010, up from 50,953 in fiscal 2009. Overall ridership on the entire Port Huron to Chicago route increased almost 19 percent, to 157,709 from 132,851. On-time performance for the last 12 months was 53 percent.

Repeat that again: East Lansing to Chicago ridership was fewer than 30,000 each way, on an established route, from an area with significantly higher population than the Iowa City area.

Ridership over the entire route was less than 160,000. Yet the projections for the Iowa City route cite a first-year ridership of 246,800. The established Blue Water Line has 36 percent less ridership than the first-year projections for the Green Line. Only one of every two trains is on time.

I think I can, I think I can … But maybe I can't, and maybe I shouldn't.

Deborah Thornton is a research analyst for the Public Interest Institute, a Mount Pleasant-based nonprofit research group. These views are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute.

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