Originally Published: March 30, 2005 10:38 a.m.
If the federal government had supplied stagecoach service in the 19th century, wed 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 is finding it hard to overhaul Social Security, which may not be surprising: Its 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 its a small program that affects hardly anyone.
This is one of those programs which demonstrate that eternal life is not just a religious hope for the next world but a fact of life in this one. The government launched Amtrak in 1971 with the hope that, in the words of President Nixons Transportation Secretary, it could be profitable within perhaps three years.
That forecast proved, well, premature. In 1998, though, Amtrak boasted that it would be operationally self-sufficient by the end of 2002.
Wrong again. Its still deep in the red. Since its creation, it has swallowed $29 billion in taxpayer funds.
By now its clear to everyone that Amtrak will never come close to covering its operating costs. Rail buffs say it shouldnt have to and argue that it deserves more generous federal financial support.
The Bush administration has reached a more logical conclusion: that the experiment, being a failure, should end. In a bracing rejection of Washingtons business-as-usual, the president proposes to reduce Amtraks share of the budget to zero.
But that doesnt mean hell get his way. Its easy to make the economic case for abandoning Amtrak. But the political case, even in a Congress dominated by Republicans, is a different story altogether. The other day, the House of Representatives approved a 2006 budget resolution that provides Amtrak with the same $1.2 billion it 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 of 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 number of miles they traveled, reports the Congressional Budget Office, airlines have 93 times as much traffic. Inter-city bus operators such as Greyhound account for seven times as much of the nations commercial travel as passenger trains. And thats saying nothing about all the people who drive.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks grounded the airlines and gave Americans a powerful new reason to consider riding Amtrak. And thats exactly what Americans did: They considered it. Then they made other plans.
After a brief surge, ridership dropped back to its normal low level. As Joseph Vranich notes in his 2004 book End of the Line, Amtrak carried fewer passengers in 2002 than it did in 2001.
Rail aficionados say Amtrak cant 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, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, commercial airlines got a net subsidy of $3 per thousand passenger-miles. Amtrak got $106, or 35 times more.
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.
(E-mail Steve Chapman through the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.)