Opinion | I was wrong, Amtrak would not be a great investment for Iowa City

Iowa City should focus on improving its own public transportation instead of burdening itself with Amtrak costs.

Shahab Khan, Opinions Columnist

I have changed my mind about Iowa City and Amtrak — at least in the short term.

Previously, I argued that Amtrak coming to Iowa City would generate economic growth for the city, as it would connect it to Chicago.

However, a quote attributed to the late great economist John Maynard Keynes sums up my new thinking on this issue well: “When the facts change, I change my mind.”

It would be best for Iowa City to eschew a proposal to develop an Amtrak route connecting it to Chicago because these projects put great strain on small metropolitan areas.

Iowa City is not the large metropolitan area that could harness the benefits of a rail line. Instead, municipal and state policymakers should focus on increasing urban density and improving the public transportation infrastructure.

In regions around the world where train travel is common, rail lines connect cities with high population density to each other. For example, in Italy, geography places six of the 10 largest cities in a relatively straight line going from north to south. As a result, a train route between these cities makes economic sense, as nearly 3.6 million Italians ride the line connecting Milan to Rome.

Contrast this with the proposed route connecting Iowa City to Chicago. The route would be comparable to Amtrak routes connecting the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to Chicago, a route that only attracts a measly 156,462 riders a year.

Furthermore, the costs of Amtrak routes routinely balloon over budget. In Ann Arbor, it cost over $170 million to build a train station that was originally projected to cost $30 million.

This phenomena has been documented when it comes to train projects as institutional factors such as NIMBYism, a catch all term referring to people who prevent new public works projects from proceeding and drive up costs astronomically.

Even if you ignored the fact that Amtrak routes go over budget, an Amtrak line still has a hefty price tag. According to Amtrak’s own projections, it would cost around $230 million to connect Iowa City and the Quad Cities to Chicago  — or around $1 million per mile.

There are better ways for Iowa City to spend its money than building an unprofitable train route. For starters, city lawmakers could continue their good work improving the Iowa City bus system and expand bus routes to serve riders on weekends.

Weekend buses would be great for low-income Iowa City residents. It has been observed that when local public transport is improved, people in lower income brackets have more access to work opportunities and are thus able to increase their own income.

The money that could potentially go to a wasteful Amtrak line could be used to build more affordable housing in Iowa City. When a city builds more housing, the price of homes and apartments decrease. This attracts more people to live in Iowa City, resulting in economic and population growth.

I guarantee you that the proposed Iowa City to Chicago to Amtrak route will go over budget and not bring the promised economic benefits to the city. As a result, the state and the city would be better off on spending the money on other projects.

Despite this, I am still hopeful that a train route could potentially connect Iowa City to Chicago. But only if Iowa City can increase its population density and improve its local public transport.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.