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Transportation Scholar Refutes Case for N.O.-B.R. High-Speed Rail

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Louisiana taxpayers would be on the line for millions in operating costs

NEW ORLEANS, La. – The debate over whether to build a high speed rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is heating up.

Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, says that a rail line connecting Baton Rouge and New Orleans could be as successful as Amtrak’s most profitable lines.

He claims that routes that run from 80 to 170 miles tend to be the best able to support themselves through fares. Shorter routes, such as Amtrak’s Capital Corridor in Northern California, usually recover 75 percent to 80 percent of their operating costs through fares.

However, the remaining 25 percent to 20 percent of operating costs not covered by fares are paid for by taxpayers.

Proposed Gulf Coast Corridor

Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute refutes the notion that taxpayers should make up the difference, claiming that any project that cannot cover its operating costs is not viable, and contends that the length of the rail line “has almost nothing to do with” covering operating costs.

He cites data from the New Haven-Springfield corridor, that shows the 62 miles rail line loses 56 cents on every dollar of operating costs, while the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor, which serves 11 million people, loses 40 cents on the dollar, leaving taxpayers to make up the difference.

In addition, O’Toole claims that there is almost no statistical correlation between the percent of operating costs covered by fares and corridor length.

Bernstein, citing a 2009 study, states that the rail line would cost taxpayers $105 million to build, while generating $186.5 million in benefits over 30 years.

However, O’Toole points out that this estimate is understated compared to current high speed rail projects. “$105 million on an 80-mile corridor is not going to produce a high-speed train. True high speed rail (150-mph or more) on an 80 miles route would cost several billion dollars.”

Florida considered spending $3 billion on a 85-mile high speed rail line in 2011, but scrapped the idea as being too costly for taxpayers.

Gov. Bobby Jindal

O’Toole also points out that Greyhound offers four buses per day between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, with fares starting at $20. He says that Louisiana should try and attract a new bus service, like Megabus, which, “might slightly speed schedules and would almost certainly reduce fares by 50 percent or more.”

In 2009, Gov. Bobby Jindal made headlines when he refused $300 million in federal stimulus money intended to kick-start a high speed rail project for Louisiana. Gov. Jindal reasoned that maintenance costs would be too high to justify building the rail system between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

In addition, Vice President Joe Biden has called for spending $53 billion on passenger trains and high-speed rail projects over the next six years, as part of the administration’s goal of making high-speed rail accessible to 80 percent of Americans within 25 years.

Worldwide, only two high speed rail lines have broken even, both of which are located in densely populated areas of France and Japan where people drive less because gas prices are twice as high as in the U.S., and many foreign intercity highways levy high tolls.


Robert Ross is a researcher and social media strategist with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be contacted at rross@pelicaninstitute.org, and you can follow him on twitter.

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  • Anonymous

    ” …25 percent to 20 percent of operating costs not covered by fares are paid for by taxpayers.” I wonder how much of the airlines operating cost are paid for by taxpayers?

  • Anonymous

    Anybody that believes this will pay for it self is dumb as the days are long! Give me the money and I will show you how to spend it responsibly. They will use your tax dollars to build it and sell it to the highest bidder or to some of there friends duh! No one is as gullible as they use to be either. I’m tired of getting screwed and not get to enjoy it!!

  • What about plain old regular speed rail lines?  Obviously there were economic at some point, until cheap gasoline ran them out of business.

  • Kimberly Bowman

    By the Cato Institute’s logic, we shouldn’t do any more road maintenance either.  In fact, we never should have built our interstate highway system in the first place and we should abolish the DOTD. They are not making a dime. Never mind that good public transportation infrastructure allows for the free flow of people and goods that have economic benefits beyond the bottom line of the rail company. 

    • You obiviously don’t understand Cato’s logic.  The idea is why spend more money on the train than on the current system that works well and is very flexible compared to rail.

      The only arguement to justify rail in most cases is that it’s “better” than a bus.  Or more people would rather ride a rail than a bus.

      Said arguements at best.

      It would be cheaper to make I-10 6-lanes from Baton Rouge all the way to New orleans plus install an interior bus only lane than to construct the high speed rail.  This includes expanding the current elevation portions of I-10 between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

      Of course rail supporters never see things in reality.  I still don’t understand what the lure of using 19th century solutions to a 21st century problem.

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  • Consider the source of the report re funding.  And, it’s also about the environment, energy dependence, and air quality.

  • Cato shbato gather like thinkers together and they will give you an opinion that is like their opinion.  This is just a monkey thinking but I want a rail between BR and NO.  I’d would use it quite a bit.  It would open new business ops for me. 
    I believe fast rail should be a priority for our country.  We need the fastest and the best along with local rail like BR to NO.  Why because we need it to move into the 21st century of compitiion?  It is the cat’s meow to me because it just plain make sense.  If you want to go back to the 50s then get out of the way for the future.  The past done gone and ain’t coming back.

    • Anonymous

      Well, I would like airship service from Fort Wayne, IN to Gainesville, FL, maybe you should pay for that. I would use it a lot. It’s just the cats meow and it makes perfect sense because I say so. I might not be able to spell “compitition” but I know how important it is for suckers like you to stuck in your ’50s cars to pay for ancient, obsolete transportation for me. And when you’re done paying for my airships, then you can start building my favorite transit of the 22nd century…canals. Better get started soon, those suckers take a looking time to build!

  • Anonymous

    When will these small minded people realize for this country to maintain its ranking as a superpower we must invest in the most modern things and that includes transportation. High speed rails are one of the fastest and convenient type of transportation. Please stop publishing ideas that will impede this area from keeping up with other part this world.

  • Anonymous

    When will these small minded people realize that a rail system is a excellent way of transportation. We need to position our area to keep pace with other parts of the country so we can compete in jobs for our citizens. I hope that you all would stop putting this type of information out becaus it helps to influence the mind of those folk who are steadfast in their thinking. 

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  • What happen to the I-49 project this should of been built 3 years ago.  Also, when widening Hwy 90 did noone have the foresite to make it 3 lanes on both sides instead of the same 2 lanes going in each direction. Considering the only place building is going on is West.  Where is the Fast Rail System especially from Baton Rouge to New Orleans considering the terrible drive on I-10 west or I-12 due to the heavy traffic this would releave the hwy and also, bring more business to both cities not to mention all the surrounding areas.  All major cities have good transportation systems and do prepare for the future.  If you want to attract new business and growth then get on the ball and let this state move forward tired of moving at a snails pace.  Maybe this is satisfactory for people who have lived here all of their life but, people who know the difference are tired of excuses and like myself if could sell their home ready to move on to cities that are living in the future not the past.