Commuter Rail Flim-Flam

New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan devoted a portion of her recent inaugural address to advocating a commuter rail line "from Boston to Nashua and Manchester".

We must find a consensus way forward on rail that will build on our many advantages and help set the stage for a new generation of economic growth by keeping more of our young people right here in the Granite State.

We'll pause briefly to note the cognitive dissonance involved in "keeping more of our young people right here in the Granite State" by building infrastructure to get them to/from jobs outside the Granite State.

As a followup, New Hampshire Public Radio interviewed Thomas Mahon, identified as the "chair of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority." This agency recently dumped $3.7 million into a "feasibility study" (link goes to their spiffy website).

Note: this most recent study should not be confused with either the study done in 2007 nor the study done in 2010. Those were different studies, and … the only thing these folks like more than trains is composing yet another study about trains.

The NHPR interviewer, God bless him, actually asked a pointed question:

But even in that best case scenario, the rail plan would not pay for itself in terms of passengers. How do you make the case for rail if it can’t for itself? Why do it?

Mahon's response could be characterized as hot air and handwaving:

It’s an investment in the state of New Hampshire. It’s an investment in the people of New Hampshire. It’s an investment in the businesses of New Hampshire and the development that will be there. The economic and financial impacts of that would be significant. If you look at other places that have instituted commuter rail, you can see that there’s a high level of activity around the stations. There’s redevelopment and development in those areas. It would mean 5,600 jobs over the first ten years and then 1,700 jobs a year thereafter.

A couple of NHPR commenters take the interviewer to task for even having the temerity to ask the question. But commenter "John Dough" (I would guess that's not his actual name):

Who actually believes that a business that needs 5,600 workers to transport 2,600 commuters [the study's best case estimate of new daily riders] is a smart way to spend $250,000,000 in taxpayer money? The same morons who spent $3,700,000 in taxpayer money to pay a consultant to tell them that's a smart thing to do.

Or: it's not enough to claim that it's an "investment". Mr. Mahon, can you show that it's a good investment? I don't think so.

I know I've asked this before, but: Why is it that people that harangue us about "trickle down economics" often seem to be the same people who are total suckers for the argument that dumping millions of tax dollars into a government-managed boondoggle will magically generate "redevlopment and development" ushering us into a golden world of prosperity?

You should not believe the quarter-billion dollar price tag, by the way. Randal O'Toole references a study that found that "the average North American rail project cost more than 40 percent more than the original approved cost". (And the study's author believes those underestimates resulted from "strategic misrepresentation, that is, lying.")

You may also want to check out this Charlie Arlinghaus op-ed:

Public policy is not about bright shiny objects. Too often politicians are so distracted by the shininess of an idea that they forget what their policy goal is. The classic example of this is the glassy eyed fascination so many people have with the romance surrounding trains. People think trains are really cool so let’s get one. It doesn’t really matter why. The excitement around the vehicle obscures the policy goal and the possible solutions.

I'd like to think that rail advocates were even slightly more hard-headed than Charlie's caricature of them, but… what "problem" can commuter rail solve that can't be solved cheaper and more flexibly with buses?

More generally: is commuting 2600 bodies daily fifty miles to a central hub really an innovative 21st-century proposal? Is that really the way the future is going to do things?