Trains For America

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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, , ,

10 Responses

  1. fpteditors says:

    Excellent post.
    Note the use of the word “congestion”. This is the new anti-transit gambit. They plan to “solve” congestion by road-pricing which will work just as first-class seating “solves” the problem of being crowded on a plane.

  2. Rails Forever! says:

    It’s outrageous that this argument is even being made in the year 2008; of course considering the origin, I’m not shcoked. After 50 years of underfunding rail transportation in the USA resulting in a system that wouldn’t match the service levels provided by a “3rd World” nation. I think we’re so far behind the rest of the industrialized world due to the flagrant over-investment in highways and air modes of transportation, it will be generations before we’re on par.

  3. Joshua Skolnick says:

    The Heritage Foundation is a dinosaur organization funded by big oil, real estate developers, the energy industry, and automobile industry, who, rather than innovate and look to alternatives, want to fund thinly disguised propaganda in order to perpetuate the status quo.

    These are the same companies that financed the destruction of the interurbans in the early postwar years, and helped end advances in US rail technology, which in the 1930s and ’40s, ran the fastest and best high speed trains in the world.

  4. […] Conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation doesn’t like Amtrak subsidies, prefers oil […]

  5. Allan says:

    Oh please people. I actually went out and read the article. They want future increases in subsidies tied to performance markers. Not a bad idea rather than just throwing money at it. There needs to be some criteria!!!

    And it’s a lot better than … whine, whine … the Europeans subsidize their rails at an even higher rate … sniff, sniff.

    Quite frankly, I don’t give a rat’s rear as to how much the Europeans subsidize their rails.

    I agree that we should end corporate welfare. The answer isn’t … well THEY’RE getting a subsidy then so should I! … The answer is to end subsidies for THEM (whoever THEY are) as well.

    There are a lot or problems with Amtrak. I think the new board is better than the old. But it has a long way to go and a lot of changes to make.

    For instance, very few people in my city even know that Amtrak stops there. They could advertise their routes, prices, and leg room! As a tall man, I find the leg room to be quite nice.

    Don’t just throw money at it. I want to see some milestones before giving more money.

  6. Nikolas says:

    Allan, Throwing money at it would allow perhaps a second or even third or fourth frequency, which could arrive at a more reasonable time for the people of your city to use. The Heritage foundation needs to crumble into the ground.

  7. fpteditors says:

    Amtrak is not subsidized. It is a public investment. The private firms profiting from free CO2-emissions are subsidized. We will be cleaning up the mess for generations, if we survive.

  8. Allan says:

    fpt – Sorry, using Orwellian techniques of redefining terms doesn’t change the fact that Amtrak is subsidized. It’s not an investment … at least not in terms expecting a return on investment.

    If it were properly run, it might indeed be an investment, but it isn’t so it’s throwing good money after bad.

    Nobody still has answered why it is unreasonable to set milestones before as a condition of the subsidy? If you build a house, you have milestones before you pay the contractor … I would expect no less in “investing” in Amtrak.

    Nik, actually the trains arrive here at a reasonable time. It’s just that so few people know about it. Plus, Amtrak just can’t add frequency, remember, they’re at the mercy of the freight companies because they use the freight companies’ track.

    I think the new board will do a better job but will it do a good enough job?

  9. […] grand passenger rail network. They may bash those on the conservative side a lot, but really only big business and the cartards, not regular […]

  10. […] particularly popular with the coveted “young and hip” crowd. A casual observer (or the Heritage Foundation) might wonder why America would bother with rail transit at all. The Interstate system already […]

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