Penny Pinching Derails Amtrak

In the latest budget proposal for the 2006 fiscal year offered by the Bush Administration, funding for Amtrak was all but eliminated. Soon, the approximately $1.2 billion operating subsidy which the company needs to keep its trains rolling will be gone. Amtrak, which has consistently been in the red for its entire 34-year history, is on the verge of being shut down, not because of economics, but because of pork-barrel politics and stubbornness. The elimination of Amtrak will leave a gaping hole in our nation’s public transportation system, one that will not be filled by commuter rail networks from major metropolitan areas, such as those along the Northeast Corridor. Services in New England and the Atlantic states are Amtrak’s biggest markets, and perhaps the easiest ways for business travelers to get around. The cuts will eliminate services like Acela, whose trains are frequently packed all the way from Boston to Washington, D.C. and provide the only alternative to flights (and the accompanying security hassles) or long, time consuming and environmentally unfriendly drives. Instead of providing full funding for such services, the Bush administration wants to shift the burden away from Washington onto the states. This administration is unwilling to take action and help those who cannot afford to fly or drive, as the current crop of Republicans seems loath to help those less fortunate. The government gives the interstate highway program 34 billion dollars a year, and the aviation industry 14 billion, and funding for both of these has increased with time. However, in the past twenty years, Amtrak’s funding has been cut by more than a third. Federal highways also do not make money (except for the oil and automotive industries), yet the government continues to support them with reckless abandon. Why does the government turn its cheek to mass transit? Because oil companies and auto manufacturers provide huge contributions to lawmakers. On the other hand, Amtrak is funded by the government, and its board of directors is appointed by the Department of Transportation. Therefore, cutting it’s funding would anger few of the powerful people who seem to be holding the reins in American politics. Another major reason people prefer to fly or drive rather than take the train is the ridiculous subsidies which the government gives to oil companies. In nations without these handouts, like Poland, gas costs nearly $10 a gallon, and public transportation is a necessity. For too long has the United States government supported industries that harm the environment and waste precious natural resources. By relying on foreign oil, we are setting ourselves up for a disaster. What will happen to this country when OPEC decides that they have had enough with our belligerent foreign policy? The gas crises of the 1970s will return, along with a need for affordable, efficient public transportation. Studies have shown that rail travel uses the least energy for intercity travel and is the most economical in many markets. If Amtrak had the same opportunity to receive federal infrastructure investments as highway and aviation interests, with comparable federal matching funds, many more communities would avail themselves of passenger rail service. In every other civilized country, the government either provides or heavily promotes and subsidizes rail service – America should, for once, follow the example of our peers and not blindly embark on a program-cutting binge.