Happening Now

A national transportation network for the price of one highway bridge

November 5, 2013

Written By Malcolm Kenton

Images: Left--Wikimedia Commons. Right--Amtrak.

In response to a letter from a constituent urging him not to cut Amtrak funding, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), who represents areas north and west of Cincinnati, said he would rather see Amtrak’s entire annual federal grant used to replace the Brent Spence Bridge, which carries Interstates 71 and 75 over the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Covington, KY. This is a classic case of the nearsighted thinking that plagues many politicians: that the only good kind of federal spending is that which directly benefits my constituents. It also demonstrates that, for the price of just one Interstate highway bridge, America’s taxpayers can get a passenger train system that serves over 500 communities nationwide and carries over 31 million people annually.

“Amtrak was created as a for-profit corporation, but it runs a deficit of over $1 billion per year,” Rep. Chabot writes to his constituent. He later adds, “I believe that Amtrak should be privatized so the company can focus on operating efficient, profitable routes and allow for more competition.”

No passenger train system makes a profit when all the costs are factored in. Opening up Amtrak’s routes to competition would do nothing to change that underlying situation. Moreover, Amtrak mostly runs on tracks owned by private-sector railroads which are legally required to accept Amtrak trains but would strongly resist attempts to force them to accept passenger trains operated by others.

Anyway, neither does any other mode of transportation make a profit. The money to build the Brent Spence Bridge in 1963 came from federal gasoline taxes (which are not true “user fees”), as well as state and local sources, which often come from general taxpayer funds. The Highway Trust Fund, which covers the maintenance and expansion of the federal highway network, would have gone bankrupt were it not for $53.3 billion in direct transfers of general US taxpayer funds into it since 2008. The Fund is scheduled to go broke again by 2015.

In his arguments for the bridge, Rep. Chabot does not apply the same standard of “profitability” that he forces on Amtrak. Instead, he focuses on the economic benefits that would be experienced over a 20 year period. That’s fair, if you consider the same economic benefits of Amtrak investment. Amtrak is more energy efficient than cars; has Congressman Chabot done the 20 year analysis for fuel saved and pollution reduced? Would he personally explain to the 20,000 Amtrak employees why a bridge is worth more than their livelihood? What would he say to the 460 private sector manufacturing companies in the high speed rail supply chain in the Midwest alone?

Eliminating federal Amtrak funding—regardless of the purpose for which those funds would be spent alternatively—would be disastrous. This funding keeps the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor running. Not only is the Northeast Corridor’s Amtrak a key artery for the most economically-productive region in the US, without which the region would be stifled by both road and air congestion, but it also hosts some of the Northeast’s most heavily-used commuter rail lines, carrying tens of thousands between their homes and offices every day. The Corridor’s national significance is orders of magnitude greater than that of the Brent Spence Bridge.

Eliminating Amtrak funding also kills the national network trains that tie the system together and provide people in small and mid-sized communities with a safe, affordable way to see family and friends, reach employment centers several hundred miles away, and access medical and other services available in larger cities in their regions. Finally, without a functioning Amtrak, the 18 states that have committed to developing their passenger train corridors, and are only starting to reap the economic benefits of their investment, would be left without an affordable provider of equipment, operating know-how, and reservations and ticketing services.

This is the United States of America, not a collection of semi-autonomous fiefdoms known as Congressional districts that jostle to feed at the federal trough. Ohio and Kentucky do not exist on an island. To demand that the 31 million-plus Americans who rely on Amtrak’s network every year sacrifice their mode of travel—and the economies that depend on that network’s health suffer from decay—just so that a single bridge can be replaced represents the ultimate in shortsightedness.

Congressman Chabot: Instead of wasting time trying to kill Amtrak—whose federal grant represents a tiny fraction of one percent of the federal budget while providing a highly cost-effective service to so many—why not press to get Amtrak just a tiny bit more, which would allow the railroad to serve your Ohio constituents with a more robust network of passenger trains. If the entire Amtrak system is the cost of one bridge, imagine how affordable increased train service to southern Ohio would be. If you look at train ridership, you’ll see that it’s what Americans really want.