TCS Daily

Katrina Costs Justify Cutting Amtrak

By Joseph Vranich - September 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Following our nation's worst-ever natural disaster, Washington will probably send $200 billion in aid to rebuild New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities. Doing so will cause the federal deficit to skyrocket. President Bush suggested last week that some Hurricane Katrina costs may be financed with cuts in other programs. Amtrak is an excellent place to start.

Consider that the railroad perpetuates the Orlando -- Los Angeles "Sunset Limited," a train listed in a Department of Transportation report as costing taxpayers $466 in subsidies per passenger. Most of Amtrak's network is expendable considering that more than 50 percent of its traffic is carried on only 10 percent of the system. Evidence that Amtrak is utterly dysfunctional can be found in 30 reports issued since 1997 by the Government Accountability Office, the Amtrak Reform Council and others.

A misguided Congressional response to the avalanche of negative findings is to throw more money at Amtrak, and yet Senate appropriators are willing to grant Amtrak $1.45 billion -- an all-time record -- while Senate Democrats claimed that anything less than $1.8 billion would be "the final nail in the coffin" for the railroad. Senators Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) ignore Amtrak's failures and want to authorize nearly $11.4 billion for the railroad over the next six years.

Before Katrina, Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta was right to say, "Handing over more than a billion dollars with no reforms attached only gives Amtrak a blank check to continue misspending taxpayer money." After Katrina, sending fat grants to Amtrak's headquarters reaches a new level of absurdity.

Amtrak's biggest money losers, the long-distance trains, should be closed. Of the 25 million passengers who rode Amtrak last year, less than 15 percent used the cross-country trains. Many more Americans rely on our airline system. The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport alone serves more than three times the number of passengers than does the entire nationwide Amtrak system of 512 stations.

We could phase Amtrak out of existence while preserving the busiest routes through a competitive bidding system that reduces subsidies as more efficient private companies take over. Already in the United States, companies under contracting arrangements carry 40 million rail commuters annually -- many more than Amtrak carries -- and they do so with a high degree of reliability.

The trains in Europe that are run by private companies are the ones gaining the most customers, a result of companies providing higher quality and lower prices to stay ahead of market contenders. Such competition inspires them to be more innovative and imaginative.

Amtrak will never turn itself around if it keeps raking in taxpayer's dollars. If Congress won't cut Amtrak and other wasteful programs now, then President Bush must put his thus-far-unused veto pen to use.

Joseph Vranich is the author of End of the Line: The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America's Passenger Trains (AEI Press) and runs the Replacing Amtrak blog.

To see more of the extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina from TCS, click here.



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