By Mary McCleary
Proponents of building the passenger rail linking Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus argue that Ohioans will be driven to take the train if gas prices rise to five dollars per gallon. They believe “investing” in the train now will save the people gas money later. Based on the data, the exact opposite is true. If gas prices increase, Ohioans will not only spend more money on gas; they will also spend a significant amount of money subsidizing a slow train that very few people will ride.
Before tackling the gas issue, it is important to note the costs associated with the passenger rail as estimated by the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODoT). First, building the rail will cost $517.6 million with $400 million coming from the federal government and $117.6 million from Ohio taxpayers. Second, the annual subsidy required to sustain train operations will be $12.7 million or roughly 16.1 cents per passenger per mile if the expected 478,000 people ride annually. If ODoT correctly estimates the railway distance between Cincinnati and Cleveland at 256 miles, the train will require an $82.44 subsidy per round trip ticket.
If Amtrak charges consumers 14 cents per mile, as it typically does between Midwest cities, each passenger will pay $71.68 for a Cincinnati/Cleveland round trip ticket. Thus, using ODoT’s estimates, the total round trip cost (fare plus subsidy) will be $154.12. However, based on the cost of the two other Amtrak lines running through Ohio, the subsidy per passenger mile is likely to be 25 cents per mile, or 36 cents per mile when long-term expenses are taken into consideration. If the needed subsidy truly is 36 cents per passenger mile, the subsidy will jump to $184.32 per round trip ticket bringing the total cost per ticket to $256, or 50 cents per passenger mile. No matter what data one uses, it is clear that the passenger rail is an expensive proposition. As previously mentioned, some folks believe “investing” in a 3C train now will save Ohioans from paying exorbitantly high gas prices several years down the road because they will have an alternative form of transportation. Even if gas prices rise to $5 per gallon, driving will be cheaper than riding the train whether the subsidy per passenger mile is 16.1 cents or 36 cents.
Even though it is unlikely that gas prices will reach $5 any time in the near future, let’s pretend that gas prices are $5 per gallon and that the rail subsidy is 16.1 cents per passenger mile. Under this scenario, driving from Union Terminal in Cincinnati to Cleveland Lakefront Amtrak Station and back would cost $77.60 in a 2010 Honda Fit and $134.75 in a 2010 Ford F-150, a known gas-guzzler. Recall that the total cost of a train ticket using ODoT’s numbers is $154.12. In spite of high gas prices, driving is still the less expensive option. In fact, with the 16.1-cent subsidy, driving a Honda fit roundtrip is less expensive than the railway until gas reaches nearly $10 per gallon. If the true subsidy, however, ends up being 36 cents per passenger mile, the total cost of driving a Honda Fit back and forth would be less than taking the train as long as gas prices remain under $16.50 per gallon.
Additionally, if multiple people travel together from Cincinnati to Cleveland, choosing to ride the train over driving would make no sense at all. For a family of four to ride the train, the cost of four round trip Cincinnati/Cleveland tickets would be $286.72, without the $82.44 per ticket subsidy. However, if the family chooses to drive its Honda Fit, the cost will only be $77.60. Thus, the family saves over $200 by driving instead of taking the train.
In addition to the high costs of running the passenger rail, the schedule is such that many potential riders will not even be able to consider the train an option. As the proposed schedule currently stands, it is impossible to travel roundtrip between Cincinnati and Cleveland in one day. Thus, anyone traveling roundtrip by train will be required to spend the night.
Even if the train schedule is revised to allow for travelers to make the Cincinnati-to-Cleveland round trip in one day, it is unlikely that riders would choose the train over a car because of the time element. For a businessman to catch the 7:15 A.M. train out of Cincinnati, he would have to leave his house around 6:35 A.M., assuming 20 minutes to drive to the train station and another 20 minutes spent walking to the train and waiting for the train to leave. The train arrives in Cleveland 6 ½ hours later at 1:45 P.M. If it takes 20 minutes to find transportation and get to the meeting, the businessman will only have 45 minutes for his appointment before he must find transportation back to the station to catch the 3:30 train. The train would arrive back in Cincinnati around 10 P.M., which means the businessman would not get home until roughly 10:20 P.M. In other words, he would spend 15 hours traveling for a 45-minute meeting.
Contrast the train scenario to driving. The driving time between the two stations in Cleveland and Cincinnati is 4 hours and 15 minutes. A businessman could leave Cincinnati at 6:35 A.M like the train rider, arrive in Cleveland at 10:50 A.M., have a 45-minute meeting like he could taking the train, and be back home around 3:50 P.M. Granted, a businessman traveling all the way to Cleveland would probably schedule several meetings, so wouldn’t get home until after 5:00 P.M. However, the point remains the same: traveling by car is easier, more flexible, and more time efficient than taking the train.
While it is true that one can do work on the train and not in the car, the train rider does not have 13 hours more to accomplish his or her work than the car driver does. If one takes into account the time spent commuting to and from the train along with the time the car driver saves by driving, the possible working hours differential is only six and a half hours. Plus, it is unlikely that most people would work the whole train ride to Cleveland, go to a meeting, and work the whole way back.
Even if gas prices rise to $5 per gallon, driving is still more economical than taking the train, not to mention that driving is also faster and more convenient. Taxpayers will be stuck both footing the bill for the train and paying for the gas in their cars. If you think people are mad about the train now, just wait until they are driving along I-71 looking at a train that’s only half full knowing every passenger paid less for their ticket than those subsidizing those tickets did.
Let’s throw the brakes on this train before it ever leaves the station.
This article was written by Mary McCleary while she was a policy analyst at the Buckeye Institute and originally appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer.