Maybe it’s time for all Americans — even those who cringe at the trillion-dollar budget deficits of recent years — to admit that there really is no political or popular will to do anything substantial about our runaway spending.
That thought comes to mind after reading a column by George Will on The Washington Post website, where he describes Amtrak as a remarkably efficient enterprise: “Not as a railroad, but as an illustration of how many permutations of waste the government can generate when it goes into business.”
Every single person reading this probably loves trains. Let’s tread gingerly here to separate today’s commercial realities from the sepia-tinted railroad memories of decades past. But Will, using information from The Cato Institute, offers up a clear case that taxpayer money is being wasted on Amtrak, and that there is no hope that the national passenger railroad can ever survive without government assistance:
• Federal, state and local subsidies for air and highway travel cost about a penny per passenger mile. Amtrak, however, got subsidies of 34 cents per passenger mile in 2019.
• That same year, Americans traveled an average of 15,000 miles on highways, 2,100 miles by plane and 1,100 miles by bus. But the average for Amtrak travel was just 20 miles, which shows how rarely the railroad is used compared to other forms of transportation.
• When Amtrak was established in the early 1970s, Will adds, Amtrak’s share of American passenger travel was 0.16%, or one-sixth of 1%. By 2019, Amtrak’s share of travel had fallen to 0.10% — but the railroad stands to get 26% of the transportation money in the pending infrastructure bill.
It’s not the 1950s anymore, and Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are not riding the 20th Century Limited from New York to Chicago, as they famously did in “North By Northwest.” Other forms of transportation are either more direct, more convenient or speedier than passenger trains. Amtrak cannot compete and hope to just break even financially.
Everyone knows that already. Yet trains admittedly retain their charm and allure, and Amtrak reels in up to $2 billion per year of taxpayer subsidies while few people in authority are willing to question the wisdom of this gift.
Will concedes this, writing, “Amtrak will never disappear, but this year’s tranche of billions will, and so will subsequent subsidies by the billions.”
Amtrak is probably one of dozens of programs that could be eliminated or reduced with some hard-won congressional consensus. Instead of making logical decisions, people in Washington have bright ideas like trying to reduce the amount of food poor people can get. Or they choose to ignore the perpetually expanding bloat of government in favor of protecting jobs or doing political favors.
This is difficult to talk about because Amtrak’s City of New Orleans route goes head to toe through Mississippi. Many people rode a passenger train as a child and have enjoyed using the rails to take their children or grandchildren on a travel experience of their own. There is an immense popular sentiment for passenger railroads, and understandably so.
But most of Amtrak’s routes just don’t make any money. They don’t even come close. We cannot sit around and gripe about wasteful government spending if we are unwilling to give up something of our own.
George Will is probably right. Amtrak has the political cover to keep getting its billions. But there is a cost to this, and we are paying it.