Budget hell on wheels?

Amtrak, long one of the favorite whipping boys of fiscal conservatives, is getting another thrashing from Mitt Romney and the Republicans. From all the attacks, one might think that the nation's bargain-basement passenger rail system was the cause of the federal deficit.

The reality is that Amtrak is attracting record ridership: 30 million passengers last year, and every month in the current fiscal year has been a record-setter, too. Amtrak ridership has increased more than 40 percent over the past decade, and that's not counting the millions more who ride commuter rail lines that depend on Amtrak infrastructure.

Yet Republicans say Amtrak is one of the first things they'd like to cut from the federal budget. Mr. Romney's campaign website actually lists Amtrak's demise as its second budget-cutting priority, after "repeal Obamacare." Never mind that the organization's entire annual budget is about $1.5 billion, which is infinitesimal by Washington standards.

The campaign platform approved at the Republican National Convention in Tampa claimed Amtrak riders receive a $50-per-ticket subsidy and that private companies could do better running the show, and that applies to high-speed and commuter rail, too. It would sound perfectly reasonable if any of it were true.

In reality, passenger rail is not a profitable business — except, of course, in those countries where private operators are underwritten by public infrastructure spending. That's not an unreasonable model. Tax dollars underwrite air and highway travel in much the same way, but any notion that it might save the federal government money seems absurd.

Indeed, past administrations have looked into privatizing Amtrak or at least the busy Northeast Corridor and either found no takers or that the potential savings are illusory. Meanwhile, the system has cut operating costs (Amtrak estimates its own cost-recovery at about 85 percent). The problem is infrastructure — the high cost of maintaining track, signals and other equipment. Most city subway systems are lucky if they recover half their operating costs through fares.

Cut the Amtrak subsidy entirely, and the result is likely to be an end to passenger rail service. Unfortunately, that's not likely to be helpful for the U.S. economy — or for growing highway and air travel congestion.

Anyone who has traveled to Europe or Japan knows that the real problem is that the U.S. has neglected its passenger rail service for decades. Trains don't travel anywhere near the speeds they can elsewhere because the government hasn't invested a fraction of what other industrialized nations have spent on passenger rail.

Trains are more efficient (they require less fuel, proportionately, than any other motorized transport) and less polluting than the alternatives. After Sept. 11, passenger rail was a vital alternative when the air transport system shut down. Do Americans want to lose that choice? Government seems to have no problem with spending tens of billions each year on roads and airports, but spending a fraction of that amount on maintaining a viable passenger rail system seems to upset certain individuals.

Rep. John Mica, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is among those most distressed by that prospect, and he has promised to hold a hearing a month on Amtrak. Recently, he held one to attack Amtrak's commuter rail operations (including the MARC line it operates in Maryland), calling Amtrak a "Soviet-style rail system." But it's hard to see how Amtrak has cornered the commuter rail market when it runs only three of 26 commuter lines nationwide.

Previous attacks have included one centered on Amtrak's food and beverage service, which is, admittedly a perennial money-loser. But the availability of refreshments is also an important selling point with customers, something Amtrak discovered when it has tried to skimp on dining car costs for long-distance service in the past.

Attacks on Amtrak will likely continue in a hotly contested election year. They fit the Republican view of federal waste and the desire for greater privatization too readily (even if the facts do not) for that not to happen. In reality, the U.S. can't afford to give up on passenger rail, at least not if the country is going to maintain an economy and society that is not wholly dependent on the automobile.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad