On the Issues: Buses & Trains & Government Bloat

I recently drove north on US51 through downtown Bloomington. It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon. I was nearly pushed out of my lane by a giant Connect Transit bus that we all see lumbering around the Twin Cities. It took up so much of the path before me in preparation for a right turn that I had to hit my brakes to give it clearance. It wasn’t the driving that bothered me so much as the size of the bus and what it represented – government bloat. (Click on the title above to continue reading if necessary.)

I live on a busy street and see those massive, overgrown, ungainly behemoths pass by my house hour after hour, day by day. But for the driver, I see an empty bus most of the time – and this catches my attention and enkindles my ire. This agitates me every time I see it because it is just another sign of wasteful spending by our federal and city governments.

While buses and other modes of public transportation do have their value, there are many reasons why I consider public transit here in Illinois, such as city buses and Amtrak, a government boondoggle. Allow me to explain, starting with city buses and then moving on to the passenger trains that also course their way through the Twin Cities many times daily.

Bloomington-Normal Buses

Our city and town governments say they don’t pay much to purchase buses. That’s true because the federal government foots most of the bill for the sake of global environmentalism. The local leadership and federal government believe that people riding buses will significantly reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. That would be true if people rode buses in large numbers, but as we can all see, very few do. While the feds might cover most of the costs of acquiring buses, local taxpayers must bear the burden of supporting them, including constructing and maintaining bus terminals, transfer stations, and repair facilities – to say nothing about the roads these leviathans help destroy as they move over them daily.

In addition to these costs (added to the federal taxes we pay to cover the government’s largess), we must not forget that we have operating expenses, including fuel, repair, salaries, insurance, and administrative costs. All these combine to produce a significant strain on local governmental budgets. The low revenue from ticket sales exacerbates deficit spending due to a nearly nonexistent ridership. Bus fares are kept low to encourage ridership, but that does little to increase it. While certain entities have contracted with Connect Transit for “free ridership” (e.g., certain classes of individuals, such as university students, merely show IDs to board), they do this by providing a substantial discount to the revenue that might otherwise be generated through fares. This saves money for individuals and even these entities contracting for bus services, but the net effect is to transfer more of the cost of ridership to the government, which means you and me – the taxpayers.

Using gargantuan buses such as those used in Bloomington-Normal produces a disproportionate amount of air pollution and energy waste that the small number of cars, vans, or microbuses needed to move these same passengers around town would produce. They also result in a disproportionate amount of road damage. Giving people vouchers to take Uber, Lyft, or taxis around town would be much cheaper and more environmentally friendly. That would be more helpful to riders because it would provide timely, point-to-point pickup and drop-off service for those in need. This would be particularly helpful for those we often see standing outside in the bitter cold or those with physical disabilities rolling their wheelchairs over broken sidewalks.

To date, Connect Transit has acquired twelve electric buses to be even more “environmentally friendly.” Unfortunately, the construction of these buses and their batteries produce more pollutants than their diesel-powered counterparts, and they break down at a disproportionate rate. Another problem is that these buses are difficult to charge when it gets cold. That’s hardly a problem when one realizes that nearly every one of the EVs Connect Transit has acquired is out of service due to mechanical or electrical problems. Making matters worse, the company that produced them no longer exists. But what’s the worry? The government (meaning you and me) will pay for the expense of these problems. And guess what? Connect Transit is on track to purchase even more EVs before the year ends! Oh, and wait until it’s time to get rid of these buses. Calamity awaits!

Illinois Amtrak

As nearly all Illinoisans know, the federal government spent many years and billions of dollars recently upgrading existing rail infrastructure, including tracks, signals, and stations, to increase train speeds and reliability of the railroad right of way between St. Louis and Chicago in the effort to speed transit between these two cities with the promise of “high-speed rail.”

The project's funding came from various channels – federal, state, and local contributions. Notably, grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation and support from Illinois and Missouri have been pivotal. Additionally, private investment has played a modest role in financing designated components like station revitalization and enhancements to rail corridors.

Despite this massive investment, the high-speed rail journey between Chicago and St. Louis still takes around 4-5 hours, including stops, depending on the speed of the train and the number of stops along the route. In contrast, a direct flight between the two cities might have a flight time of 1-1.5 hours. However, when considering additional time for getting to and from the airport, check-in, boarding, security, and potential delays, the total flight time could be comparable to or longer than high-speed rail, especially for shorter distances. Still, while this might be a convenience, the estimated 15 minutes saved per passenger between Chicago and St. Louis is hardly worth the billions of dollars spent – again, at taxpayer cost.

There are many other complaints I can register about our so-called high-speed rail. The phrase "high-speed rail" suggests rapid travel. It is anything but. While the speed between stations now might reach 80 mph – a speed which barely rivals the speed of traffic on I-55 – it’s clear that the speed of the Illinois route does not meet the standards expected of true high-speed rail systems such as Japan's Shinkansen or France's TGV. Amtrak's rail service in Illinois falls far short of what world travelers have come to expect.

I and many others also have problems with what might considered Amtrak’s infrastructure. A case in point is Normal’s railroad underpass. Rather than build a simple over-the-track elevated walkway, the Town of Normal intends to spend much more than is necessary to construct an underpass. Funded mainly by outside tax dollars, the city leaders seem oblivious that this wasteful spending is at the base of deficit spending and is driving our nation, state, and towns to financial wreck and ruin.

Government Bloat in General

Anyone who pays attention to where federal tax dollars come from and go to knows about the excessive expansion and inefficiency within the governmental system. According to the National Debt Clock, the national debt is approaching thirty-five trillion dollars. The national debt is growing at a rate of one trillion dollars every 100 days or so. Service on the national debt (the cost of borrowing dollars to finance deficit spending) constitutes 16% of all federal spending in fiscal year 2024. In addition, printing more dollars to feed the national appetite has driven inflation to as high as 8% annually in 2022.

The national debt represents over $100,000 for every single person in America. I sometimes ask myself, “Where has our $400,000 been spent for my family of four? How have we benefited to that extent?” If the truth be told, a vast amount of tax dollars is spent on government bureaucracy, which is overly complex, duplicated at many levels, and results in wasted resources, decreased effectiveness, misappropriation, and theft, and erodes the public’s trust in government. So much for transparency in government!

Eliminating government bloat will require a systematic approach to streamlining bureaucratic processes, enhancing efficiency, and promoting accountability. Doing so will require making tough decisions due to the needed cutbacks. Here are some steps that can be taken now to address government bloat:

  • Emphasize needs over wants and set priorities as to what needs to be funded.
  • Return to the principles of capitalism and flee from the principles of socialism.
  • Eliminate wasteful earmark appropriations that fund pork barrel politics that woo political favors.
  • Make foreign nations, such as those associated with NATO, pay for their national defense.

Given President Trump's prior positions and policies, he would generally support these points, which is good to know. However, the extent of his support would likely depend on the specifics of each proposal and how they would align with his overall political agenda and priorities. These would be good things to ask any candidate running for federal office.

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