On Saturday morning, Governor Chet Culver traveled by train from Valley Junction in West Des Moines to downtown Des Moines, ending up at the farmers’ market. Culver’s five mile train ride was part of National Train Day, and he also used the occasion to promote his $765 million borrowing scheme that the Governor calls I-Jobs.
While traveling on the train, Governor Culver signed a proclamation officially claiming that May 9th was Train Day in Iowa. In his speech, Culver noted, “This [Des Moines] is the only major city in America that doesn’t have passenger rail service that is having a National Train Day event.” The media made Culver’s train ride into a big deal, however, the event at the farmers’ market in Des Moines this weekend wasn’t even included on the National Train Day website. Instead, events in Boone and Dubuque were listed.
The National Train Day events around the country featured concerts, train rides, model train displays, and other family activities. Governor Culver’s Train Day event featured a five mile train ride for him and some VIPs and a three minute speech, which focused on building passenger rail service from Chicago to Des Moines, something Culver wants to see finished in the next few years.
Culver used the photo-op to promote his I-JOBS borrowing scheme, which included $10 million for multimodal transportation projects, including $3 million for expanded passenger rail service. Culver also claims that 800 temporary construction jobs will be created by extending passenger rail service to Des Moines.
In addition to creating construction jobs, backers of increased passenger rail service claim that it will help reduce the carbon footprint of people seeking to travel to other metro areas. While there could be some truth to that, it didn’t hold true for Culver on Saturday. Culver drove farther to ride the train for five miles than it would have taken for him to just drive to Court Avenue. So much for being green.
Additionally, Culver’s train trip showcased other problems associated with train travel. First, the train carrying Culver wasn’t on time. The event was to set to begin at 10 a.m., but Culver didn’t speak until just before 11 a.m., and his speech lasted only a few minutes. After his comments, Culver ditched the train, opting instead for his Chevy Yukon XL to take him back to Terrace Hill.
While the traditional media was quick to cover Culver’s five mile train ride and three minute speech, they have failed to ask some simple questions. First, with falling state revenues, budget gaps, and reduced funding to schools and local governments, can the state afford to make major investments to expand passenger rail service in Iowa? Second, has any market research been done to determine if there is a demand for increased passenger rail service, or is this simply another case of politicians telling the people what they want to see happen?
Governor Culver has estimated the cost for expanding rail service to Des Moines to be around $125 million, a figure that he says is, “fairly modest.” Yet, Highway 20 in northwest Iowa is not completed. It is also interesting that, while legislators and Governor Culver openly acknowledge that Iowa’s roads and bridges need significant investment, they support something like expanding passenger rail service in Iowa which will compete for federal gas tax dollars in our state. Furthermore, expanded passenger train service will do nothing to help rural communities even though all Iowans will be expected to pay to build, maintain, and operate it.
Nevertheless, a photo-op of the Governor on the back of a train car decked out in American flags is just too much for the media not to cover. The people of Iowa deserve an open and honest debate on whether or not we should be investing millions of dollars into a passenger train travel.
In 2007, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) said, “The world has proven in country after country that you cannot operate passenger rail service at a profit. It is kind of fallacious to even believe that it is possible. We tried it.” Amtrak, which is a government funded entity, employs 19,000 workers. Most of them are union members. Amtrak has never recorded a profit since its inception despite receiving $40 billion in federal funding. In 2008, Amtrak had an operating loss of $381.1 million.
Governor Culver and Iowa Democrats seem to have bought into a false belief that the people of Iowa are clamoring for passenger rail service in Iowa. They also believe that passenger rail service will be a boon to the cities along its route. They are mistaken. Increased passenger rail service will do nothing but siphon off federal gas tax dollars from our roads and bridges and require more hard earned money from tax payers to prop up an industry that is no longer needed or wanted.
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