Coburn, Flake blast Amtrak's 'writers residency' program

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is joining the opposition to Amtrak's offer of free rides to those in its “writers’ residency” program.

Coburn joined Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in writing a letter to Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman saying that the company should not be offering free rides while it is receiving subsidies from the federal government.

Coburn and Flake said they was troubled by the price of the free trips Amtrak was offering considering the company has traditionally received about $1 billion per year from Congress since its inception in 1971. 

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“According to your website, this program is designed ‘to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment’ and will award up to twenty-four writers free round-trip train travel on a long-distance route for up to five days (though exceptions apply),” Coburn and Flake wrote. 

“We are certain that there is considerable demand for free Amtrak tickets in any number of venues,” the lawmakers continued. “Unfortunately, given Amtrak’s prodigious annual taxpayer subsidies, this plan raises multiple red flags. 

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), lawmakers appropriated more than $1.5 billion in 2013 to subsidize Amtrak service, the two said.

Amtrak's program involves offering free roundtrip tickets to writers who have "a passion for writing and an aspiration to travel with Amtrak for inspiration."

“Each recipient will receive ‘a private sleeper car, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration,’” Coburn and Flake wrote. “According to the terms of the program, the approximate retail value of this award package is $900."

Amtrak has defended the writers’ residency program as a relatively inexpensive way to spread the word about its long-distance trains, which are historically its most highly-subsidized routes.

“The Amtrak residency campaign concept was created by closely listening to Amtrak customers and fans through social media," Amtrak Spokesman Steve Kulm said in an email to The Hill earlier this week.

"By quickly acting and establishing the program, Amtrak has determined that the Amtrak residency program will be a low-risk, high-reward, marketing initiative," Kulm continued. 

Amtrak has traditionally responded to criticism of its subsidies by pointing out that most of the money is used for construction projects. The company has said that over 80 percent of its operating costs are paid for by revenue that is collected from ticket sales.