Several times in the past I have posited that folks in power simply hate buses. How else to explain light rail and high speed rail projects that are both substantially more expensive and substantially less flexible than buses. Some of the reasons for this include:
- Politicians like rail better because it is sexier. Period. They are trying to spend taxpayer money to support their own re-election talking points.
- Unions and city workers like rail because it is more expensive. More money gets spent, either creating more union jobs or giving transit leaders bigger budgets which translate into higher salaries and more prestige for themselves. And the lack of flexibility is good for them because it makes their job immune to budget cutting. Just too many sunk costs.
- Middle and upper-middle class folks in the public have a deep disdain for buses, which they associate with poverty and blue collar labor. Riding buses hurts their self image, even if the service is no worse than trains. Rail is the Louis Vuitton handbag of transit.
In Phoenix, light rail requires a subsidy of $3.82 center per mile (that is the government spending above and beyond the fare), which is nearly 10x what we spend on buses. And light rail uses more energy per passenger mile here than driving.
Anyway, this story from Iowa seems to support my point -- the government is proposing to spend tens of millions of dollars to create a rail service that is slower and more costly than existing private bus service.
The latest in lunacy in high-speed rail lunacy: at Joel Kotkin’s newgeography.com Wendell Cox reports that the U.S. Transportation Department is dangling money before the government of Iowa seeking matching funds from the state for a high-speed rail line from Iowa City to Chicago. The “high-speed” trains would average 45 miles per hour and take five hours to reach Chicago from Iowa City. One might wonder how big the market for this service is, since Iowa City and Johnson County have only 130,882 people; add in adjoining Linn County (Cedar Rapids) and you’re only up to 342,108—not really enough, one would think, to supply enough riders to cover operating costs much less construction costs.
Oh, one other thing. Cox reports that there is already luxury bus service, with plus for laptops and wireless Internet, from Iowa City to Chicago. It’s part of a larger trend for private companies to offer convenient and inexpensive bus service. A one-way ticket on the bus costs $18, compared to a likely train fare of more than $50. And the bus takes only three hours and 50 minutes to get from Iowa City to Chicago. That’s one hour and 10 minutes faster than the “high-speed” train.