Iowa City-North Liberty train risks runaway spending

Passenger rail remains unproven in communities like ours

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All aboard! Next stop: Government boondoggle.

Johnson County leaders are reviewing new research on the feasibility of passenger rail service between Iowa City and North Liberty. The span would cost up to $40 million, and additional research is being planned to forecast ongoing costs and revenues.

Analysts predict workday ridership on the Iowa City-North Liberty line could reach 6,200 by the year 2040, assuming trains run every 30 minutes. Setting aside the ridiculous idea that the government could possibly predict how many people will ride a train more than 20 years from now, these figures don’t seem very promising.

Traffic surveys show Interstate-380 between Iowa City and North Liberty already sees 50,000 cars daily. Even if rail ridership predictions proved accurate and Interstate use held steady - both unlikely - the train would only take a modest fraction of the traffic off the highway.

It’s not hard to see why Americans don’t ride trains. They boast the sluggishness of car travel, combined with the inconvenience of air travel.

Johnson County politicians have been mulling passenger rail my entire adult life, first a failed Iowa City-Chicago proposal and now this. Trains must be the transportation of the future. After all, Europe has trains, and look how progressive they are.

However, consider that population density in European Union countries totals more than 150 people per square mile. Some communities in the northeast United States are more dense, but the vast majority of America is much more sparsely populated. Iowa comes in at only 55 people per square mile.

What’s more, Iowa towns don’t tend to have highly concentrated employment centers like some American metros. Our three biggest employers in Johnson County - the University of Iowa, UI Hospitals and Clinics, and the Iowa City Community School District - are all sprawling operations with numerous outposts.

Maybe some workers and shoppers would ride the train from Iowa City to North Liberty, but then our communities would need additional infrastructure and services to get them to their destinations.

Proponents of transit diversification like to point out that all travel in the United States is subsidized in one way or another. It’s a fair point, and they’re correct that governments tend to spend more total dollars on roads than on other forms of transportation.

However, Americans travel by highway more than 100 times as much as they ride trains, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data. Americans travelled an estimated 4.5 trillion passenger miles by highway in 2015. By contrast, all rail travel totaled 39.3 billion passenger miles in 2014, the most recent figures available.

Yet our highways don’t cost 100 times as much as our railroads, not even close. In 2012, highway spending accounted for 70 percent of state and local transportation spending, and less than a quarter of federal transportation spending.

Passenger rail projects cost millions from the start, and require operating subsidies for their entire lifespans. Any hope that the federal and state governments will be reliable funding partners for decades into the future is rooted firmly in fantasy.

If we’re not careful, Johnson County taxpayers will soon be at the caboose end of a bad joke.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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