Lake Of The Ozarks To Waste Sales Tax Monies On Passenger Rail
As Missourians consider whether or not to vote for a transportation sales tax, localities and regions are writing up their wish lists for how the new money will be spent in their areas. The Lake of the Ozarks is no exception. Some of the projects that area counties have proposed have merit, including reasonable road and sidewalk improvements. Others do not, such as what is at the top of Camden County’s list: passenger rail from Jefferson City to Camden County.
While a detailed plan has yet to surface, it is certain that any passenger rail extension from Jefferson City to Camden County would be incredibly expensive. How expensive? The distance from Jefferson City to Camden County is more than 50 miles, and new rail construction can cost up to $25 million per mile, more if they need to acquire right-of-way or build new bridges. Even simple rehabilitation of existing track can be very expensive, as the Missouri Department of Transportation’s (MoDOT) recent $48 million expenditure to improve 10 miles of track demonstrates.
What would be the demand for this line? The Missouri River runner, which connects major Missouri population centers along the Missouri River, has had difficulty gaining passengers and runs a significant operating deficit ($8 million to $9 million per year). If a link between Saint Louis, Jefferson City, and Kansas City has insufficient demand to cover costs, what are the chances for a rail line that simply connects Jefferson City to Camden County?
To get a sense of the ridiculousness of the project, consider how one might go about using this rail line. If one were planning to go from Saint Louis to the Lake of the Ozarks via this route, there would be two options. First would be to drive to Jefferson City, get out of the car, and take the rail the last 50 miles. The second option would be to go to the St. Louis Civic Center, catch one of the two daily River Runner trains to Jefferson City, and then transfer to the rail line. With both options, given the spread out nature of the Lake of the Ozarks, it is likely that anyone taking the train would have to rent a car upon arrival. It is immediately obvious that no one would consider this a reasonable transportation solution; the only market would be rail enthusiasts.
This rail project demonstrates the folly of using a sales tax to pay for transportation in Missouri. When users of highways are the ones paying for highways, the amount available to spend on new construction and maintenance is controlled by underlying demand for those assets. When everyone pays a sales tax for anything that can be called transportation, the money gets spent on politically popular projects, regardless of feasibility or demand. So it goes that if the sales tax passes, shoppers in Saint Louis will fund an empty train to Camden County.