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January 19, 2011

Tim Rogers: Crunching the numbers

Good morning.

I would never want to suggest that someone in government is playing fast and loose with the figures.

But when it comes to the Georgia Department of Transportation’s estimate that between 2.6 and 4 million people per year will ride some part of the proposed high-speed rail line between Chattanooga and Dalton, that is exactly what I am suggesting.

And, unfortunately, it is the state’s release of figures like these that prevent us from having a real debate on whether this rail line is even needed.

But first, let’s look at the numbers.

According to Amtrak, about 28.7 million riders used its rail service during its 2010 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30. That is its total ridership for the entire nation, including the busy Northeast corridor, where about 10.4 million people rode the rails between Washington, D.C., and Boston.

Using the estimated populations of the metropolitan statistical areas in the Northeast and comparing them to the estimated populations of Atlanta and Chattanooga, you find that there are about 40.4 million people spread out within the East Coast megalopolis and about 6 million people living in Atlanta and Chattanooga.

Using these figures, Georgia planners estimate that we will have higher train ridership rates than the Northeast, despite the fact that we have no recent history of boarding trains to go anywhere and that the Northeast is already built to accommodate and encourage passenger train travel between cities. Yet, somehow, a greater percentage of the people along the I-75 corridor than the Northeast will suddenly decide to park their cars and ride the train.

Sadly, the ridership numbers make even less sense if you look at them in terms of the estimated $6 billion to $9 billion that it will take to build the rail line.

Even if you take the highest number of riders (4 million), the lowest estimated cost ($6 billion) and assume a 30-year pay out of the loan taken out by the federal government to build the line (remember it is all our money whether it comes from the state or the feds), you find that, on average, each passenger will have to pay $50 to ride the line. Run the math. Four million times $50 equals $200 million in annual revenue. Two hundred million times 30 equals $6 billion. That, of course, assumes there are no operating costs for the rail line during the first 30 years the line is in operation and that we have found someone to front us the money without charging us any interest.

But even if all that is true, I can’t think of many people in Dalton who will be willing to pay $50 a ticket to go to Atlanta (I hope the leg to Chattanooga would be cheaper). That comes to a cool $250 for my family and me (one way only) to go enjoy a day in the city.

So, the government would probably have to subsidize that ticket to coax people onboard. That would make it cheaper for the rider but would just add expenses on to the back end for the taxpayer.

If you don’t want to take my word because you believe I am already against building the North Georgia rail line, consider a study that was just completed for the governor of Florida about the proposed high-speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa Bay.

According to an article last week in the Orlando Sentinel, this study concluded that the high-speed train that would link Orlando to Tampa could be plagued by costly overruns and carry far fewer passengers than anticipated.

The 24-page report concluded that Florida should either cancel the $2.7 billion project or write a contract that prohibits the state from contributing any tax dollars to it.

The study also said that ridership studies for such projects are often “wildly optimistic.” About 2.4 million people per year are predicted to use the Florida line.

The governors of Ohio and Wisconsin have already refused funding for high-speed rail projects in their states because they believe the money could be better spent on more pressing transportation issues, such as our crumbling roads and bridges.

The problem in transportation is that we face two problems. The immediate, which is enormous, and the long-range, which is how do we eventually transition away from cars and trucks as we currently know them.

High-speed rail is being pushed by the feds and the state as the answer to this second question. Unfortunately, we are asked to commit massive amounts of money to the project without asking some basic questions.

For example, will high-speed rail be used as a way to move goods and products? Are there companies willing to invest their own money in high-speed rail to at least partner with we the people in this project? Would it be cheaper to look at the existing rail lines and perhaps find a cheaper solution by upgrading them? Maybe medium-speed would be an acceptable compromise if high-speed is too expensive.

High-speed rail has been a dream of ours for many years, because it is successfully used in Western Europe, Japan and now China.

But none of those countries have the same transportation history that we have, the same level of development across such a broad expanse of land or as much invested in the open road as we do.

We shouldn’t ignore high-speed rail, but it doesn’t seem that $6 billion to $9 billion for a rail line between Chattanooga and Atlanta is in anyone’s best interest.

But, even if we want to keep it on the table, at least let’s slow down and say whoa when we see numbers being thrown around that don’t make any sense.

And, however you slice it, 2.4 million to 4 million riders doesn’t make any sense for this area of the country.

That right there should be enough to make us all question what is going on.

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