Thursday, January 01, 2009

Boardwalk Boondoggle Express

We're barely 18 hours into the New Year, and already I have a candidate for the dumbest travel-related idea of 2009. (So far.)

Stipulated: We need more and better train service in this country. You bet.

But a luxury train to transport casino gamblers between New York and Atlantic City? Surely not, you say.

Yep. It starts Feb. 6, thanks to a venture involving New Jersey Transit, Amtrak, and a handful of casinos looking for new ways to literally haul the suckers in.

The casinos say they're mostly funding the venture under contract with the railroads that included having New Jersey Transit buy eight double-deck luxury cars for $11 million each. A New Jersey casino development agency also put money into the pot.

New Jersey Transit and Amtrak say the venture won't cost taxpayers any extra money -- hey, the casinos promise to pay! However the money and funding ultimately work out, I do not know anyone who is making any long-term bets on the fortunes of Atlantic City casinos, which have been struggling and which tend to attract a low-roller market even in good times.

This Bloomberg news story of two days ago provides a stark look at just how bad things are for Atlantic City's 30-year-old casino industry.

Meanwhile, the fact is that we are devoting crucial public-transit resources providing fancy train service so all of those slot-machine-cranking sad-sacks who make Atlantic City the very special place it is don't have to ride the bus from New York.

What a country!

An AP story today proclaims the news, without bothering to look at the financing, that starting Feb. 6, the new service, called the Atlantic City Express Service ("Aces," get it?) will begin operating between New York and Atlantic City, with a stop in Newark (whoopee!).

The service is already over a year behind schedule, incidentally. Initially, it is planning to operate on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

The gamblers' express will be on double-deck train cars "outfitted with leather seats, a private lounge and food and beverage kiosks," the AP enthuses, adding: "First-class passengers will receive food and beverage service," which I presume means free grub and booze in English.

The round-trip coach fare is $100, and $150 for first class.

You won't read salient financial details in the AP story, which is predictably disinterested in who's actually paying for this wonder, and who might get stuck with the huge bill if things don't work out. And alas, New Jersey has never been particularly blessed with aggressive news reporting, and the state's only ambitious newspaper, the Star-Ledger of Newark, has been slashing staff and threatening to close its doors.

New Jersey Transit and Amtrak will operate the service. The New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is also "partially" funding the venture.

Oh, and 75 percent of the seats on the Boardwalk Boondoggle Express are reserved for customers of the participating casinos.

Our air-travel system is shrinking to the point where a one-day business trip is a disappearing concept; our highways are crumbling; our commuter and corridor trains are packed to overflowing while most of the country lacks viable rail service entirely -- and these geniuses are diverting public-transit resources to a bunch of casinos near the ass-end of the Jersey shore.

Wanna bet on whether this ends in tears and red ink?


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