Amtrak offers a bargain fare from St. Louis to Chicago most days -- $27 each way. But don't thank the rail company, thank the Illinois taxpayers who subsidize this and other passenger train routes in the state.
Broke Illinois has agreed to give Amtrak up to $37 million in the next fiscal year, or a 32 percent increase over the current subsidy. Politicians love trains, even when the financial equation doesn't add up. Riders love them too, especially at a $27 fare. But taxpayers should remain skeptical.
The private Brookings Institution said it cost $32.4 million to operate the St. Louis to Chicago route in 2011, or $4.1 million more than the funds available. The route loses money each year even though ridership increased from 256,000 passengers in 1997 to 597,519 in 2012 -- a 133 percent increase.
If a private business still couldn't make money despite such a surge in usage, it would have to shut down. But Illinois is committed to this route and is even paying Amtrak to add another daily roundtrip. That's because federal and state taxpayers are spending at least another $1.6 billion to build a new, not-so-high speed rail line between the two cities.
Wonder how much taxpayers will have to spend each year to subsidize the new line, which won't get passengers to their destination much faster than a car would? Expect the amount to keep going up, not down.