The Importance of Maintaining Long Distance Passenger Rail
Another year, another Congressional Republican attack on Amtrak’s popular long distance rail service.
This time California Republican Jeff Denham is among those seeking to shut down the high ridership service:
In a May hearing, Rep. Jeff Denham, a California Republican and chairman of the railroads subcommittee in the House of Representatives, noted that Amtrak’s long-distance routes lost a combined $600 million in 2012.
“We simply cannot afford to continue these levels of subsidized losses year after year,” Denham said.
The truth is that the United States can easily afford $600 million a year to subsidize long distance passenger trains. It’s 0.06% of a roughly $1 trillion federal budget. And it’s 0.0038% of a $15 trillion national GDP. It’s a statistically negligible drop in the bucket.
The problem with Denham’s approach, and with the article as a whole, is it assumes there’s something wrong with subsidizing transportation. The Interstate Highway System is massively subsidized, with 0.0% farebox recovery (the gas tax is by no means equivalent to purchasing an Amtrak ticket and even then gas taxes fail to cover the full system cost) and nobody bats an eye.
That’s because we have made a decision as a democracy that interstate freeways ought to be subsidized. One can argue the wisdom of that decision, but because it has popular support, that situation persists. And I would argue there’s nothing wrong with the public deciding to subsidize a particular form of transportation. The question should be whether we believe freeways are a good use of subsidies, not whether subsidies should exist in transportation.
Dave Johnson makes a similar point about Amtrak subsidies over at the Campaign for America’s Future:
Democracy is We the People doing things to make all of our lives better. So in a democracy “government spending” is by definition money we spend to make our lives better. Plutocracy and its “market solutions” are about government doing things for people who have money — the rest are seen as “losers” or “takers” who are just in the way. America since Reagan has been transforming from a democracy to a plutocracy that serves the people with the cash. In this example it is people in rural areas who might have to pay the price, losing their rail service.
Amtrak was started at a time when the United States was more democratic. It was seen as perfectly acceptable for Congress to subsidize long distance passenger rail because there was a clear national interest in doing so. It was seen as good to maintain a national rail network, providing people the opportunity to connect between states and metropolises without having to drive. For many people in cities with Amtrak long distance stations, the passenger trains serve as an important travel lifeline in a world where airlines have largely forsaken small towns.
The need for long distance passenger rail is even stronger today than it was in 1971 when Amtrak was created. Gas prices are soaring and so too are carbon emissions. Providing Americans with ways to get around that are more carbon efficient should be a national priority, well above market considerations. Climate change will cost far, far more than $600 million a year. We should be investing to electrify the long distance routes and provide more frequent service, not looking for excuses to eliminate them entirely.
Americans want to ride passenger trains. Give them the option and they’ll take it. It’s been proven time and again across the nation. The same is true with the long distance trains. We need a national rail network, one that serves towns large and small, in order to support a strong economy, reduce carbon emissions, and reduce gas consumption. And if we have to subsidize those trains, that ought to be just fine. After all, the savings we realize more than make up for the costs.