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What The WSJ Did Not Say

March 6, 2019

The Wall Street Journal Wasn't Wrong On Illinois...But They Overlooked Important Facts

by Jim Mathews, President and CEO

Sometimes what you don't say is even more important than what you do. Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal offered a lukewarm -- although factually accurate -- status report on Illinois' fast-rail project linking Chicago to St. Louis, but barely concealed its disappointment that after spending $2 billion the train will "only" be an hour faster than today's trip. This is the same paper, let's remember, that has lambasted California's high-speed rail plan for overreach.

I don't really fault any of the reporting. In fact, as usual, the Journal was thorough and meticulous. I recommend that you read the piece. But after you read it, think about what was left unsaid...which is what I'll say here.

First, the obvious point: the Journal can't simultaneously criticize California for aiming too high while faulting Illinois for not going far enough. On the contrary, Illinois by some lights should get high marks for focusing on going ahead with something achievable in a short time frame with the "mannah from heaven" chunk of money they got to start the project.

Second, the piece seemed to cherry-pick riders whose needs and desires don't support the overall use case for higher-speed trains to St. Louis. And oddly, those riders quoted spelled out objections to today's trains that the new service could fix. One woman quoted in the story who was disappointed in her recent -- first-time -- Amtrak trip to St. Louis from Chicago declared that normally she flies and saving an hour wouldn't be enough to get her off the plane because "you usually end up waiting somewhere for an hour." Sounds like an argument to go ahead with this new corridor, to me. Moreover, if you're a college student from Bloomington, that equation shifts pretty rapidly. Let me know next time you find an affordable, quick airline flight from Chicago to Bloomington-Normal that a debt-burdened college student can afford.

On the other hand, the Journal quotes a whole range of notables, many of whom are known well in this Association, who emphasize that reliability and frequency are the keys to building and growing new service. While talking about reliability and frequency, the paper skips over the ways that this project addresses both of those concerns, and will improve service for many users along the route from today's baseline. A new, reliable 110-mph service between Chicago and Bloomington-Normal might actually prove a game-changer for those who today are forced to drive.

Third, as a nation we have got to find a way to move past the blinkered and limited view of the "benefits" of public investment. The real point of spending $2 billion for a faster train ride between Chicago and St. Louis is not necessarily to get to St. Louis an hour faster (although that will be a good thing). The point is to inject new mobility choices into Joliet, Bloomington-Normal, Pontiac or Carlinville. Time and again we have found that investing in even the most bare-bones of rail service pays off in the local economy three, four, five, even seven times over the original investment. Elsewhere in the WSJ, you'll find analysts touting investments that return considerably less than that ratio. Why so blind on rail's economic benefits?

So if you find yourself this week talking to a friend, a relative or a colleague about this Wall Street Journal story, point out the things left unsaid. And if you want to talk knowledgeably about the economic benefits of passenger rail, take a quick spin through two of our most recent research projects here at your Association: the study that uncovered $180 million in annual economic benefits to Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico from the Southwest Chief, and our latest research note identifying a $25 million annual benefit to Minnesota from launching a second daily frequency between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

It's not about whether the train makes a profit...it's about who profits from having the train.