Policy Documents

I Think I can, I Think I can!

Deborah D. Thornton –
December 1, 2010


The beloved children’s story, "The Little Engine that Could," is a tale of perseverance and spunk, used to teach children that if they keep trying, they will eventually succeed. Unfortunately, sometimes we don’t.

The federal government recently awarded initial funding to Illinois and Iowa for the development of passenger rail service between Iowa City and Chicago. Following this announcement internet comment boards have been filled with ardent opinions from those both for and against. The federal government is trillions of dollars in debt and many states, including Iowa and Illinois, are fighting to balance their budgets. According to the Illinois Comptroller, Illinois has a $15 billion deficit, while the Iowa budget is barely balanced. Accordingly, it is appropriate to ask if this is a wise use of taxpayer dollars. The initial appropriations to Iowa and Illinois for the "Green Line" total $230 million, with another $21 million in matching money required from Iowa State government, and $45 million from Illinois. The annual operating subsidy required by Iowa alone will be over $3 million.

Proponents of passenger rail service tout the potential ease of travel, low ticket costs, environmental impacts, student use, and romance. Opponents counter with the history of schedule delays, inconvenience, inflated ridership estimates, cost overruns, and continued subsidies. Both are firmly convinced their opinion is correct. The pro-forma estimates used to justify federal funding are just that — estimates made with certain assumptions and starting points. Business people, even those supporting this idea, will admit that pro-forma numbers are rarely accurate. This leads to the review of current, real data, from a comparable situation.

The Amtrak "Blue Water" line runs between Chicago and Port Huron, Michigan. There is a stop in East Lansing, home of Michigan State University, a Big Ten university with over 41,000 full-time students.

1 Lansing, next door, is the state capital. The population of Ingham County, which includes both towns, is approximately 246,000, and the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is just over 450,000.2 In comparison, the University of Iowa has just over 30,000 students. The 2009 Johnson County population estimate is 131,000 (MSA of 147,000); Linn County is 209,000.3 On all three factors Iowa City comes up short — fewer students, smaller total population, and not the state capital. However, the distance from Chicago is exactly the same: 220 miles by car, approximately four hours.4 Both towns have easy access to an airport; both have bus service. This makes for an ideal comparison of train, car, plane, and bus options.