Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Heritage Foundation gets it all wrong

Yesterday the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, published an online policy paper stating that HR 6003, the Amtrak reauthorization bill, “would be the costliest bailout in Amtrak’s 40 years of federal subsidies.” The cleverly woven spin in the report naturally misses the point of why Americans value rail travel, and why it’s important to our future.

Of course, they point out how Amtrak relies on federal subsidies:

Despite this massive subsidy and endless promises of improvement by a series of recent managers and board members, Amtrak is no closer to service sustainability today than it was 38 years ago, in large part because its passengers value the service at only a fraction of what it costs to provide it.

That’s basically a very economist way of saying that Americans like their travel to be affordable. And why not? I value my college education, but if the government didn’t subsidize it, I wouldn’t have been able to attend. Why shouldn’t effective transport be similar? And why can’t we spare money for our trains when we can hand out $20 billion to the oil industry each year? Those defending the oil subsidy would say those companies are providing a service to the country. Isn’t that what Amtrak is doing to an even greater extent? This report by Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General also points out how piddly Amtrak’s public funding is compared to its European counterparts.

The Foundation also mobilizes its oh-so extensive environmental credentials, claiming that trains don’t offer that much of an environmental advantage over planes. What they fail to state is that increased energy efficiency in planes doesn’t come close to equating with decreased environmental consequences, not just from CO2, but also from other pollutants that are particularly potent when released high in the air. They also don’t consider that trains compete with car trips, which, in addition to consuming a large amount of energy per person, are incentive for the construction of more huge roads and hence more traffic congestion.

For this reason, the report’s conclusion rings pretty hollow:

The transportation challenges confronting the United States over the next several years will be unprecedented in their scope and difficulty. As congestion worsens and undermines the economic vitality of some metropolitan areas, voter skepticism about the competence of federal and state transportation officials has increased and in the process has discouraged efforts to increase the public resources available for transportation investment. Legislation such as H.R. 6003 deepens that skepticism by demonstrating that Congress is more interested in pandering to influential constituencies than in finding solutions to mobility and congestion relief.

So how do we meet this unprecedented challenge? What so-called “solutions” would they suggest? The answer isn’t continuing the self-perpetuating cycle of widening our roads. Americans want real cures for their transport woes, not bandages applied by those interests too afraid to end automobole hegemony for the greater good.


Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, , ,

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June 2008