OPINION: Spending money on a high-speed rail system in Michigan is an ill-conceived idea
I was reading Sandy Schopback’s guest column (“Ann Arbor and Michigan could learn a lesson from Europe on high-speed trains” -- AnnArbor.com, Sunday, Jan. 8). And as a young engineer with a master’s degree in transportation engineering from Purdue University and a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Michigan, I must respectfully disagree on the merits of high-speed rail in Michigan. In fact, I believe that the train should not be built at all, and that the money would be better spent on other uses.
Also notice that I-94 has a posted speed limit of 70 mph, a design speed of 75 mph, and many people will exceed even the 75 mph design speed and actually go faster than the 79 mph that is the train’s top speed. I have made the trip myself, and almost all of the segments of I-94 in Michigan do flow at 75 mph and faster. What might slow me down is if I stop along I-94 to eat, to refuel, or to take a rest break. But consider that, if I were starting out at Exit 210 in Dearborn and head west from there along I-94 at the 70 mph speed limit, I would reach the Indiana state line in exactly three hours. About another hour and a half, and I will have reached downtown Chicago in a total time of 4.5 hours.
But the assumption that most trips are from downtown to downtown is fundamentally flawed. Many people actually have to go to suburban areas instead, and the point-to-point convenience that the car provides is much better than having to wait 30 minutes for a transfer from the train to the bus (for example, AATA's buses run on a 30-minute frequency), and realizing that in that time you could have arrived at your destination already. Because the automobile allows for point-to-point transportation on demand, which is something that no mass transit system can provide. Indeed, someday in the future, cars will be able to drive themselves (the technology is already here with Google’s driverless car) and at that point, the train will be completely obsolete.
What’s worse is when I actually look at MDOT’s high-speed rail grant application (<www.michigan.gov/documents/mdot/Michigan_Corridor_SDP_330329_7.pdf>). They hold that the train’s travel time, under the proposed conditions, would take 5 hours and 26 minutes. They state that the drive time is about 4.5 to 5 hours, and then they state that the drive time is “4 to 34 minutes slower than” the train’s 5 hours and 26 minutes. Even a third-grader can tell you that it’s wrong! Because the drive time will actually be FASTER than the proposed high-speed train -- by 26 to 56 minutes.
If you look at the same table for the airplane travel time, they state that it is 4 hours and 40 minutes, which is “14 minutes slower than” the train’s 5 hours and 26 minutes. This is starting to look suspicious! I then back-calculated the travel time comparisons, and then concluded that the numbers have been fudged.
The report does not even mention what the cost of the ticket would be. But I looked at Amtrak’s website, and they often charge up to $75 for a ticket from Detroit (or Ann Arbor) to Chicago. That’s more than double the cost of fuel, even at $4 per gallon. Google Maps reports the distance from Detroit to Chicago to be 286 miles; my 2011 Chevy Cruze gets 32 mpg, and at $4/gallon, I would spend $35.75 on fuel for the entire trip.
So is high-speed rail a worthwhile project? My answer is a clear NO! Because the train will not attract any riders from the existing modes of transportation. Let’s face it: Nobody will give up driving their cars on I-94 to ride a train that is slower than the freeway, especially when they would have to use a car at both ends of the trip. Worse, though, is when our leaders and our governmental agencies deliberately fudge the numbers to make the project LOOK like a worthwhile project, when it IS NOT a worthwhile project. This is a very clear misuse and misappropriation of our taxpayer money, especially when other more worthwhile projects have to do without.
Look at the state of our transportation system in Washtenaw County and in Southeast Michigan in general: Some of our roads are in bad shape, not just from a pavement condition standpoint, but from a capacity standpoint. Look at Michigan Avenue (US-12) between Ann Arbor and Saline. Look at US-23 between Ann Arbor and Brighton. Look at I-94 between US-23 and State Street. All of these roadways have needed widening and improvements as long as I have been alive! Also look at the bridge on Stadium Boulevard over State Street and the railroad tracks, near Michigan Stadium. Look at how bad of a shape it is in, and how it was so difficult to get the money to replace it. (Thankfully, they are finally getting around to replacing it.) This is where we ought to be spending our money, not on a high-speed train that obviously will not solve these problems.
Look at how many subsidies go into mass transit, especially rail transit; note that there is no transit system in the nation that even comes close to being economically sustainable, not even that of New York City. Note that the experience in Europe has been similar: roadways and cars have still attracted MUCH more travel than the high-speed rail system there. Also note that only two high-speed rail lines in the WORLD have ever broken even: Paris to Lyon, and Tokyo to Osaka. And also note that, contrary to popular belief, mass transit is NOT greener than the private automobile: A typical transit bus only gets 4 mpg -- which is the equivalent of 8 Chevy Cruzes (or 12 Toyota Priuses). The high-speed rail line in Florida, which has been cancelled, would have used 3.5 to 6.0 times as much energy as the cars they would have replaced!
Even Amtrak’s $75 ticket from Detroit to Chicago is heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars. So the high-speed rail system would likely have to be heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars in perpetuity -- and very few people would use it. So let’s be frank here: If we cannot afford to fix up our roads and bridges, then how on earth can we afford to subsidize a luxury train for the few, in perpetuity, while the rest of us have to drive on roads and bridges that are left to rot?
Sam Leckrone is a life-long Ypsilanti resident.