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Face It, Rail Needs Subsidy
Published on Monday, October 1, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
Face It, Rail Needs Subsidy
Every year, the United States spends billions of dollars to subsidize air and road travel. Gas taxes pay for superhighways. The federal government pays for air traffic control. When it comes to rail travel, the penny-pinching starts.

Amtrak should sink or swim in the marketplace, say detractors like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has led the opposition to continued Amtrak funding. This selective free-market economics is preposterous, especially in the wake of terror attacks that showed the value of trains.

American visitors to Europe or Japan marvel at the efficient high-speed trains; the U.S., by contrast, has a crumbling railway system unable to even upgrade its track. Immediately after Sept. 11, Amtrak ridership rose about 17% and is now between 10% and 13% higher. Commuters between New York and Washington realize that, with Reagan National Airport still closed and new security controls in place, the train more than ever saves time and aggravation.

California is also seeing the value of commuter and long-distance rail in combating smog and easing pressure on highways and airports.

Since 1990, the state and Amtrak have jointly put $1.2 billion into rail improvements and have jointly developed a 20-year rail plan. Amtrak has plans, though not funding, for high-speed lines from San Diego to San Francisco and through the Central Valley. Improvements aside, Amtrak says it also needs $3 billion right now to upgrade security. That funding should be approved quickly.

Created in 1971, Amtrak was supposed to become economically viable within a few years. Unsurprisingly, this never happened. In 1997 Congress even imposed a December 2002 deadline for Amtrak to become self-sufficient or be dismantled. For its foes, dismantlement would be a dream come true.

True, the company has received $27 billion in federal subsidies over the last 30 years, with the losses exacerbated by years of bad management. But a constant emphasis on cost-cutting meant it never had sufficient capital to modernize the railway system. The new high-speed Acela trains in the Northeast corridor do not run at top speed because of the degraded condition of the rail bed.

Its critics need to understand that Amtrak provides a national benefit, and like air and highway travel it cannot survive unsubsidized. Congress should pass a bill before it to issue $12 billion in bonds for high-speed rail. Rail travel is not a nostalgia trip.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, who has been sympathetic to train travel in the past, has the power to make it a priority. It is in the national interest that Amtrak be efficiently run but also properly funded.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times


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