Logic Derailed

I don’t remember asking for a train, I don’t remember seeing anything about a train on the last ballot, and I certainly don’t recall hearing candidates give speeches on the issue of a passenger rail between Cleveland and Cincinnati. In fact, the last time I ever heard the topic come up in a conversation it sounded a little like this: “Man, it would be pretty cool if I could just hop a train to get to NY or Chicago”, to which I responded, “You can, but the train leaves at 2am, it’ll take you all day to get there, and it costs about as much as a plane ticket." End of discussion.

But now, all of a sudden, the State of Ohio has come up with this grand scheme to build a high speed rail line linking Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati. Forget about the fact that “high speed” apparently begins with a top speed of 80mph and an average travelling speed of 40. Disregard the fact that the price of a ticket will be more than what it costs to drive. And let’s, for now, ignore the fact that the government doesn’t exactly have the best record when it comes to operating public transportation (How’s that community circulator working out for ya?). Let’s actually start with the question, "WHY?"

Don’t even bother asking the state. The answer is quite simple: it’s because we can get the funding from the federal government. Don’t be fooled by the cool charts showing population centers, the 3D renderings of how nice the stations will be, or the repeated promises of new jobs or increased revenue. If there weren’t a promise of $400 million in federal stimulus money burning a hole in their pockets, there wouldn’t be a single politician in the state that would touch this proposal with a ten-foot pole. But with the same kind of look in their eyes that you see in a teenager who just got $20 for “emergencies only”, the politicians in Columbus have visions of golden shovels, personalized hardhats, and ceremonial scissors as they puff out their chest to show you all the bounty that their self-indulgent leadership can provide.

The truth is, if this were an issue requiring a vote, it would have trouble getting enough signatures to even get on the ballot. But then, this was never about filling a public need, but about needing to keep the public busy. The people in Columbus and Washington D.C. believe that you can spend yourself out of a recession, yet they know you would never vote for a tax increase to support such frivolous make-work projects. So instead, they pass legislation allowing even more deficit spending. Then they take the money and dish it out to their districts in the hopes that we’ll all be fooled into believing that they’ve “created” something for the greater good. Then once the bill comes, the public will have no choice but to pay more in taxes to cover the cost of what we didn’t want in the first place. But when that day comes, they won’t tell you how much of a drain the new rail service is to the state budget, instead they’ll once again threaten to close another fire station or lay off some more teachers.

But even if all of that weren’t the case, I still don’t see how the Department of Transportation can talk about this project and keep a straight face. Is there really enough demand to fill four trains a day with people who are willing to spend three hours and $25 just to get to Columbus?  With one of the finest business schools in the nation in our backyard and the Glenn Research Center full of rocket scientists, you’d think we could come up with a better plan than this.

For starters, how about building a high speed train that actually travels at high speed? Why do we have to start slow and build from there? Aren’t there already a half dozen or more bullet trains running in Europe and the Far East? How about just importing a little know-how from those who have gone before us? If you want to attract a strong customer base, the first trick is to offer something new, like being able to get to your destination faster.

And, if you can’t offer speed, how about service? I understand the draw of not having to do the driving, but if you’re trading the headaches of highway traffic for the problems of figuring out the bus schedule or taxi service once you get to your destination city, is it really that big of a benefit? So once again, how about taking a cue from proven technology? Instead of focusing on passenger cars, what about targeting cars as passengers? If it were modeled after the Eurotunnel service offered between England and France, a person could simply drive their car onto the train in Cleveland, set the parking brake, relax and ride all the way to Cincinnati, once there, simply roll off and drive on to where they need to go. Install a wireless internet service on the train and I’m sure it would be a welcomed travel option for businessmen.

I’m not even going to ask if the land has been appropriated for this development. It hasn’t even left the planning stage and this whole deal reeks of potential cost overruns, construction delays, and zoning difficulties. But the biggest problem is that we just can’t afford it. We can’t afford to build it, and we certainly can’t afford to maintain it. We’re all in a position where we’re clipping coupons and tightening belts, so why is the government so intent to build what we don’t even want, when we’re having trouble getting what we need?

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then I’m petrified to find out where these half-baked, slow-speed train tracks will lead us, but I’m willing to bet it’s not a place called prosperity.

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Volume 6, Issue 3, Posted 10:25 AM, 02.10.2010