Monday, January 6, 2014

A missed opportunity

Iowa failed to take advantage of passenger rail when the price was low, but it’s not too late to invest.

Clearance items are tricky. If it’s something you will need in the long run, like toilet paper, you might as well buy. However, items bought because they’re a good deal, like a “buy one, get one free” sale, are gimmicks to get your money. It hurts your pocketbook when you mistake one for the other, and especially when it happens at the governmental level.

Recently, Iowa hesitated and utterly fumbled a once cheap project to connect Iowa City, and eventually Des Moines and Omaha, to the Quad Cities and Chicago via passenger rail.

Illinois is following through on adding the Quad Cities to its existing passenger rail network, but Iowa has yet to follow through on its end of the bargain. Of the $108.6 million originally needed to build the railroad extension from Iowa City to the Quad Cities in 2010, Iowa would have paid a measly $20 million over four years while the federal government would have covered the rest, the Iowa Department of Transportation reported.

Proposed route and daily schedule for passenger rail connecting Omaha to Chicago.

Now that Iowa has dilly-dallied for a few years, falling federal support, mounting construction costs, and new regulations have conspired to raise our share of the bill to $72 million. This poses a big political challenge to approving the funds needed to build additional rail connecting Iowa City to the Quad Cities. On the bright side, estimated annual operating cost of this extension fell from $3 million to $600,000.

Before the cost figures were revised, Gov. Terry Branstad was skeptical of the rail project on the grounds that it may be too expensive, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported, so it’s doubtful he will be much more supportive now. As Gov. Branstad correctly pointed out, Amtrak already has a route running through southern Iowa.

But aside from Omaha, the cities on the existing route are fairly small, ranging from 8,000 to 25,000 residents, and are an hour drive from Iowa’s larger cities like Des Moines and Iowa City, based on estimates from Google Maps.

A better located passenger rail network that connects Iowa’s largest metro areas with Chicago would alleviate a likely boom in traffic along Interstate 80, fueled partly by large population growth in Iowa’s major cities.

Indeed, analyses of public transportation have shown these systems save time for commuters and lead to less fuel consumption. The Texas A&M Transportation Institute studied public transit systems in 498 American urban areas. In 2011, public transit saved commuters in these cities 865 million hours, decreased congestion costs by $20.8 billion, and saved 450 million gallons of fuel.

Even though it works in some places, expanding public transit isn’t necessarily a good idea everywhere. Fiscal responsibility is a virtue for good reason, but it’s frequently used for political expediency. In the long run, a passenger rail system could save money for Iowa.

Woods and Poole Economics projected that from 2010 to 2040, Dallas, Polk, Johnson, and Linn Counties would grow by a combined 331,000 residents. This level of population growth in counties on and near I-80 will lead to more traffic congestion, slowing commutes, hurting commerce, and raising CO2 emissions.

The Iowa Department of Transportation estimated in a fact sheet that about 300,000 riders would use the Iowa City or Quad Cities passenger rail service annually. A study by the U.S. DOT also projected that by 2030, stop-and-go-traffic will be present on 75 percent of I-80 in Iowa if no changes are made.

What’s more, the Gazette reports that on a per-mile basis, adding another lane of traffic would cost triple the amount needed to make rail suitable for passengers.

Paul Trombino, the Director of the Iowa DOT, also told the Gazette that Iowa communities initially agreed to pay half the initial operating cost of $3 million, which since fell to $600,000. So if these cities still want to commit to passenger rail on this level, the state won’t have to pay any operating cost.

Passenger rail service through eastern Iowa is no gimmick. It’s still a great bargain and a superior alternative to expanding I-80. Iowa needs to invest in the project before federal support completely dries up and construction costs boom again.

Jon Overton is the Media Editor for Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology. He also writes for The Daily Iowan.

No comments:

Post a Comment