Friday, February 11, 2011

On Amtrak and Ideology

In January, 2.1 million people rode Amtrak trains, the 15th month in a row in which passenger use increased, and a new record for the national rail carrier.

Last year collectively, Amtrak carried more than 28.7 million passengers.

Like Interstate highways, like airports and air-traffic control systems, passenger rail transportation requires an infrastructure that has to be built and maintained.  The Federal government provides support to Amtrak for track maintenance and other capital projects. 

One thing of which we can be sure, though, is that the Federal government has no intention whatsoever of stopping its subsidies of transportation overall, and if subsisides are going to be made to support infrastructure, rail deserves to be at the table.  Much of the rail infrastructure outside of the Northeast Corridor is privately owned and still gets subsidies. 

So, let's focus our attention on operating subsidies, the money that Amtrak receives on a per-passenger basis just to run its trains, without concern for the infrastructure.

In 2010, Amtrak received $563 million in operating subsidies from the Federal government.  The $563 million figure comes from a site whose entire purpose is to denounce Amtrak as wasteful spending, so it's fair to say that it doesn't pull any punches.

This amount equates to $19.62 per passenger for 2010.

Considered another way, the population of the United States by December 31, 2010 is estimated as having been more than 308 million people.  That means that every American paid an average cost of 55 cents per year to provide for the Amtrak operating subsidy.

Of course, fewer than half of all Americans file tax returns; some are below the income level required to mandate filing (because they pay no tax), while others have not reached adulthood.  Since Americans file tax returns for a given year after the year ends, we won't know until after April how many people filed taxes for 2010.  We can estimate, though, that it may have been as few as 150 million. 

That would make the Amtrak operating subsidy roughly $3.76 per taxpayer per year.

At a time when the Federal budget is approximately twice the total sum of all revenue brought in by the Fedearl government--that is, we borrow 50% of what we spend--cuts do need to be made.  But let's get real: $3.76 per person is not the reason that the Federal government is spending itself into oblivion.

The question is, is it worth expecting every taxpayer to part with nearly $4 per year just so he or she can over the course of a lifetime have the opportunity to take a train trip?

Think about it this way: even as an avid traveler, I'm unlikely to visit Iraq or Afghanistan.  Yet as a taxpayer, I incurred a $220 cost to pay the 2010 war supplemental budget of $33 billion, and that was on top of the $534 billion Department of Defense 2010 budget that already cost me $3560.

Don't get me wrong: the Department of Defense is important.  I'm not begrudging my obligation to pay $3560 to support our military.  (Actually, that one's an easy sell for me, since as a Reservist I net more than the average taxpayer amount paid.  But I digress.)

But as important as these other expenses are, the fact is that I get a lot more use out of Amtrak's mere existence than I do out of our continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Amtrak travelers, for instance, are neither on the roads nor in the screening lines at the airport; that saves me time.  And when I'm the one traveling by train, I benefit from the services provided.

We should continue to promote more efficient Amtrak operations, and we should invest in the infrastructure--both rail and rolling stock--that will make these efficiencies possible.  But we should not under any circumstances accept the ideological notion that passenger rail should be privatized.  When you hear that, understand that Amtrak exists only because private passenger rail has proven itself impossible in the United States.  Privatizing rail means eliminating rail.

No, not every American will ride Amtrak this year, or ever. But not every American--or even most--will ever see all of our national parks, either. We still pay for them, because they're important; the option to see them is important. That's true of Amtrak as well.

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