Tuesday, October 09, 2012

What kind of future should Amtrak have?

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My conservative friends will not agree with this essay. So be it. I am tired of hearing the demands that Amtrak either show a profit or that it be put to a merciful death.

Tea Party advocates and some arch-conservatives like to carry pocket editions of the Constitution of the United States and even to cite it as the source of their virulent anti-deficit views. There is no provision in any copy of the Constitution that I have seen that spells out a requirement that any government activity be undertaken only if it produces a profit.

We could contract out the world's finest military and make it a mercenary force. We like getting mail delivery six days each week, and we particularly like only having to pay 44 cents for a first class letter. Most of the world charges more and delivers with less certainty than does the USPS. Locally, we don't begin to pay the cost of our city and county streets and roads, using property taxes to keep them maintained, plowed, and policed.

Perhaps someone can cite a profitable government function, but I cannot think of a single one that is performed profitably. So, passenger trains? As others have pointed out, all transportation is subsidized to one degree or another. Where in the Constitution is it mandated that those who fly or take the bus should benefit from taxes paid by their fellow citizens, but those who choose to travel by train are freeloaders who should not receive any service for which they do not pay 100% of the cost?

We have a right to demand that Amtrak and any other government function be provided as efficiently and economically as possible. We also have the right, if we choose to exercise it, to terminate Amtrak's existence. But why would we want to do that?

In this wonderful nation we can have anything we are prepared to pay for. Somehow, Amtrak subsidies have become the stuff of legend. Members of the House and Senate who have given little or nothing to the nation inveigh against Amtrak and its need for subsidies. The same legislators are quick to pony up big bucks for highways and for air transportation.

When I say big bucks, I mean it. The total subsidy provided to Amtrak since its 1970 creation is less than one year of federal appropriations for highways.

Some will try to rationalize that highways are paid for by users. Bull! Every independent study of the highway program and its funding has concluded that the big rig truckers, the very ones that compete with railroads for freight traffic, pay less than 80% of their allocable share of highway construction and maintenance costs. This fiscal year and next, some $109 billion has been allocated for the highway program.

Airlines are no better. Other than a handful of high-traffic hub airports, they cost local taxpayers and do not produce a profit. Nor do airlines pay for the 50,000 or so Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers who keep the system functioning.

We don't expect peanut farmers to pay for their subsidies, nor do we expect those who produce other subsidized crops to pay us taxpayers for their largesse. I'm not arguing against subsidies for various enterprises. I am arguing against a double standard that says Amtrak should be out of the long-distance train operating business while others are getting significantly larger subsidies.

Lawrence H Kaufman, Contributing Editor

Larry H Kaufman is a veteran transportation journalist and commentator and a Contributing Editor to Railway Age.