Steve Chapman

Nowhere is his indifference to data more obvious than on high-speed rail. "This is what the American people want," he declared. "If you build it, they will come."

The question, though, is not whether anyone would ride high-speed trains, but at what price. If Americans want a high-speed rail system so badly, will they be willing to pay fares that would cover the expense of operating trains?

"I think it will cover operating costs," said LaHood. "During better economic times, operating costs were covered by the Chicago Transit Authority."

No, they weren't. The CTA never comes close to breaking even on operations. In 2006, the last full year before the recession hit, its revenues from fares, advertising, concessions and the like covered only 55 percent of those costs.

No mass transit system in the country charges riders enough to offset the expenses of running trains -- much less the cost of capital. Amtrak loses hundreds of millions a year, and it makes an operating profit only on its somewhat high-speed Acela Express between Boston and Washington.

That's why Republican governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Scott of Florida have turned down mountains of federal cash for high-speed rail. They fear being saddled with a big bill to build and operate expensive systems that will never live up to ridership projections.

Rail buffs counter that highways and airports get subsidies, too. In fact, motorists pay more in federal gas taxes than the federal government spends on roads. Air travelers get a small subsidy -- about $6 per 1,000 passenger-miles in 2002, compared to $159 for mass transit riders and $210 for Amtrak passengers.

But all this is beside the point. In LaHood's Department of Transportation, data doesn't drive. Data gets run over.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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