Policy Documents

Research & Commentary: SunRail Will Produce Few Benefits and Cost Millions

December 8, 2009

As Florida policymakers take up the SunRail passenger rail proposal, the performance of existing passenger rail systems across the country should be part of their deliberations.

In 2008 America's predominant passenger rail service, Amtrak, lost an average of $32 per passenger. High gasoline prices meant ridership on Amtrak was up, but the system did not even manage to break even, much less make money. Hundreds of millions of tax dollars are used every year to keep Amtrak afloat.

Some supporters of passenger rail point to Europe or Japan as success stories for high-speed rail, but even overseas those systems are heavily subsidized and fail to turn a profit or break even. Inaki Barron de Angoiti, director of high-speed rail at the International Union of Railways in Paris, told The New York Times that the only routes in the world to break even have been the short Paris-Lyon and Tokyo-Osaka routes.

Rail certainly has advantages over air and ground travel. It's more fuel-efficient and produces less pollution. But rail is most successful when it is used for freight rather than passengers.

Freight rail is more cost-effective than passenger rail for reducing traffic, and it's much less of a burden on taxpayers. Even without federal subsidies, freight rail is increasing its profits.

If high-speed rail truly is the "great hope" for commuters fed up with high gas prices and traffic congestion, then the market should be ripe enough for a private passenger rail company to come in and turn a profit. The availability of federal stimulus funds might make SunRail look like a win-win situation, but that money will eventually dry up, and the system's operating costs will inevitably exceed revenues. Florida taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.

The documents linked below offer additional research and commentary on high-speed rail.

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High-Speed Rail: The Wrong Road for America
http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=9753
Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, points out, "Planners have predicted that a proposed line in Florida would use more energy and emit more of some pollutants than all of the cars it would take off the road."

Penny Herman: Short-Term Jobs, Long-Term Subsidies Ride the Rails
http://www.tallahassee.com/article/20091202/OPINION05/912020303/1006/opinion/Penny-Herman-Short-term-jobs-long-term-subsidies-ride-the-rails
Penny Herman, a realtor in Tallahassee and a former city commissioner, considers the long-term effects of the proposed SunRail passenger rail project.

High-Speed Rail Would Take 8 States for a Ride
http://www.heartland.org/policybot/results/25790/
Steve Stanek, a research fellow at The Heartland Institute, looks at how a proposed Midwestern high-speed rail line will cost taxpayers while doing little to cut travel times.

Evaluation of the FDOT-FOX Miami-Orlando-Tampa High-Speed Rail Proposal
http://www.jamesmadison.org/pdf/materials/167.pdf?PHPSESSID=0b776b151ecf0ae7e24fed7114905dbb
This study by Wendell Cox for the James Madison Institute analyzes what high-speed rail would mean for Florida and concludes it "is likely to be a financial disaster for Florida."

A Rail Boondoggle, Moving at High Speed
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/23/AR2009082302037.html
Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson highlights the true cost of high-speed rail. He says using billions of dollars for such projects would be a boondoggle.

Increasing Passenger Rail Service Could Make Traffic Even Congestion Worse
http://www.heartland.org/policybot/results/22115/
Wendell Cox, a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute and former member of the Amtrak Reform Council, considers whether passenger rail eases traffic congestion.

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For further information on the subject, visit the Budget & Tax Issue Suite on The Heartland Institute's Web site at www.heartland.org.

Nothing in this message is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. If you have any questions about this issue or the Heartland Web site, contact Legislative Specialist John Nothdurft at 312/3774000 or jnothdurft@heartland.org.