Tuesday, March 29, 2005

If the federal government had supplied stagecoach service in the 19th century, we would still have stagecoaches in operation. Luckily, Washington was wise enough to stay out of that business. It was not wise enough to stay out of the passenger rail business, which is why we still have Amtrak.

President Bush finds it hard to overhaul Social Security, which may not be surprising: It’s a huge program that plays a large role in the life of virtually every American. But he may find it equally frustrating to shift federal policy on Amtrak, even though it’s a small program that affects hardly anyone.

This is one of those programs that demonstrates eternal life is not just a religious hope for the next world but a fact in this one. It was launched in 1971 with the hope that, in the words of President Nixon’s transportation secretary, it “could be profitable within perhaps three years.”

That forecast proved, well, premature. In 1998, though, Amtrak boasted it would be “operationally self-sufficient” by the end of 2002. Wrong again. It’s still deep in the red. Since its creation, it has swallowed $29 billion in taxpayer funds.

By now it’s clear to everyone Amtrak will never come close to covering its operating costs. Rail buffs say it shouldn’t have to and argue it deserves more generous federal assistance.

The Bush administration has reached a more logical conclusion: the experiment is a failure and should end. In a bracing rejection of Washington’s business-as-usual, the president proposes to reduce Amtrak’s share of the budget to zero.

But that doesn’t mean he’ll get his way. It’s easy to make the economic case for abandoning Amtrak. But the political case, even in a Republican-dominated Congress, is a different story. The House of Representatives has approved a 2006 budget resolution renewing the $1.2 billion Amtrak got last year.

What does the money pay for? A railroad that lacks riders. Amtrak makes much of the fact that last year it attracted a record 24 million passengers. But outside a few densely populated areas (like the Northeast Corridor) where it can compete with cars and airlines, its role is microscopic.

When you multiply the number of passengers by the miles they traveled, reports the Congressional Budget Office, airlines have 93 times as much traffic. Intercity bus operators like Greyhound account for 7 times as much of the nation’s commercial travel as passenger trains. And that’s saying nothing about all the people who drive.

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks grounded the airlines and gave Americans a powerful new reason to consider riding Amtrak. And that’s exactly what Americans did: They considered it and then made other plans.

After a brief surge, ridership dropped back to its normal low. As Joseph Vranich notes in his 2004 book “End of the Line,” Amtrak carried fewer passengers in 2002 than in 2001.

Rail aficionados say Amtrak can’t compete with highways and airlines because they get far bigger federal subsidies. But that picture is cockeyed. Most of the federal aid to these other modes is repaid by users. Washington actually gets more back in taxes on highway users than it spends on their behalf.

On a passenger-mile basis — how much of a subsidy is involved in moving one person a given distance — the federal aid to Amtrak is huge. In 2001, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics says, commercial airlines got a net subsidy of $3 per 1,000 passenger-miles. Amtrak got $106, or 35 times more.

Why does Congress keep shovelling money down this chute? One reason is Amtrak runs through 46 states, which means many members of Congress have a stake in its survival.

But the chief reason is that, as a share of the federal budget, the money that would be saved by eliminating Amtrak is tiny — $1.2 billion, next to total spending of nearly $2.6 trillion. The average taxpayer would never notice the savings. Diehard fans of passenger rail, however, would notice the deprivation and make their unhappiness known to their elected representatives.

Democracy is supposed to let the majority decide what it wants. But Amtrak supporters have a different formula: They’re such a tiny minority that it’s hardly worth resisting them.

Next to the mammoth task of revamping Social Security, tackling Amtrak should be easy. But President Bush may find it harder to swat a fly than to corral an elephant.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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