A commuter train to Concord? No thanks.
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When it comes to transportation policy, you’re either a train person, or you’re not.
When I was living in downtown Washington, D.C., it was really convenient to take Amtrak into the center of Philadelphia or New York and not have to deal with traffic or parking. It would be great if enough Americans rode the train to make passenger rail an efficient and profitable part of our transportation system. But they don’t.
Former New Hampshire senator John E. Sununu has been a leading opponent of subsidizing Amtrak’s long-distance routes, which hemorrhage more money every year. Sununu added up the costs a year ago in his Boston Globe column, finding over half a billion in Amtrak operating losses in 2010, on top of a billion dollars in capital
expenses and $1.3 billion in stimulus grants. Eighty percent of Amtrak’s losses come from 15 percent of passengers who travel long-distance. It would cheaper for us to buy each a plane ticket than to have them buy a ticket on Amtrak.
These losses are nothing new. Amtrak has promised to get on track to self-sufficiency since it began in 1970.
You’d think Amtrak could at least make back a few bucks on concessions. Yet Amtrak’s food service operation has lost money every year since Congress told it to start breaking even, in 1981.
Only Amtrak could lose $80 million a year selling food to a captive audience. It spends $16 to make a hamburger that it sells for $9.50. Don’t worry. It will make up the difference in volume.
Sure, taking the California Zephyr or the Sunset Limited across the country might be wasteful, but trains make money in the crowded Northeast Corridor, right? Sort of, if you don’t count taxpayer-funded capital costs. There are a few routes to and from New York that bring in more ticket revenue than they spend on operating costs.
Take the most successful passenger rail line in the country over the past decade, the Downeaster. This commuter train makes five trips daily between Boston and Portland, Maine, with New Hampshire stops in Exeter, Dover and Durham. It’s seen record ridership this year.
This railroad success story makes enough money to fully pay half of its operating expenses. The taxpayers of Maine fork over $7 million to $8 million a year to keep the Downeaster rolling, much of it going to subsidize the daily commutes of workers who don’t live, work or shop in Maine. Be sure to thank them.
Last week, the New Hampshire Business and Industry Association held a forum on the prospect of bringing a Downeaster-style commuter rail line through Central New Hampshire. The Capital Corridor Project would extend passenger rail service from Lowell, Mass., up through Nashua and Manchester, eventually providing daily rail service from Concord all the way to Boston’s North Station.
In addition to the annual operating losses that New Hampshire taxpayers would inevitably pick up, the Capital Corridor Project would cost around $300 million to build. Extending the tracks just to Nashua would cost between $60 to $90 million.
Former New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority chairman Peter Burling points out that bringing rail service to Nashua would qualify for a 50 percent federal match, but bringing it all the way to Concord would be 90 percent federally-funded. That’s quite an incentive to choose the most expensive option on the table.
No one can claim that passenger rail would ever pay for itself, much less recover its construction costs. We would be paying for other people to take the train to Boston. Advocates tout vague and unverified claims of economic development, as if businesses and tourists are following the train tracks like it’s 1870.
Housing and shopping may indeed cluster around new train stations, but there is scant evidence that passenger rail service does anything more than concentrate economic activity. It does not create it.
One thing we can all agree on, especially while stuck in traffic on Interstate 93, is that other people really need to start taking the train more often.
The question is, how much are we willing to pay them to get out of our way?
Grant Bosse is vice president for media for the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank based in Concord.