Trump’s rail funding cuts prove good for taxpayers
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President Trump’s preliminary budget sparked outrage among government-rail advocates, though American taxpayers should celebrate.

Research shows that public transportation should focus on busing, not rail. While trains are excellent ways to move freight, they are a horrifically inefficient and expensive way to move people.

Trump’s plan calls for eliminating all federal funding to Amtrak’s national network and $499 million in cuts from the TIGER grant program, which also funds passenger rail. But the biggest cut — $2.3 billion — is to the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” Capital Investment Program.

The Capital Investment Program funds light, heavy, and commuter rail, along with streetcar, and bus “rapid transit” projects.

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Bus programs have their critics, but the most inflexible, costly, and inefficient public transit options are all forms of passenger rail—they require the largest, per-rider taxpayer subsidy.

 

The simple fact is that every public transit system fails to recoup the upfront cost to construct the track, trains, and passenger cars. Additionally, they all lose money on annual operations – including New York City’s massive system – requiring an ongoing subsidy for each rider. While NYC’s system is a necessity – as Manhattan cannot physically hold the number of cars its workforce requires – the vast majority of other systems do not reduce roadway congestion.

The Dallas-area boasts the largest passenger rail network in North America, operated by Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART). Since its inception, local cities have poured more than $10.5 billion into the agency, with another $9 billion in debt issued to build the lines. But according to an independent report, it has been an abysmal failure.

Today, DART has the fifth-highest taxpayer subsidy per rider in the nation, out of 1800 transit systems. News reports over the last thirty years have detailed the fact that its costs have continued to exceed estimates, while its ridership has underperformed.

To date, government rail proliferation in Dallas and elsewhere has been made possible only through massive federal and state subsidies.

Moving forward, the Trump administration wants local tax dollars to pay for local projects, a fundamental shift away from the status quo. “Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” reads the budget.

Most rail advocates oppose this approach because rail expansion will all but cease without federal support. But critics argue the burden for these highly specialized local projects should fall on the local communities they purport to benefit.

After all, why should federal bureaucrats force New York taxpayers to finance a rail project in Dallas?

Sounding the alarm on the cuts, The National Association of Railroad Passengers – a rail advocacy group – said, “This [budget] will jeopardize mobility for millions of Americans and endanger tens of thousands of American jobs.”

However, the only factual part of that statement is that it will endanger jobs at government agencies.

These are jobs in a declining industry that are heavily subsidized by tax dollars. As far as jeopardizing mobility, an increasing numbers Americans are refusing to use commuter rail and are embracing alternatives.

Rail is an antiquated mode of transportation and ridership numbers show that. In 2016, Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, and Washington D.C., all highly dense highly populated areas, saw decreases in ridership.

Virtually every major U.S. city saw a decrease, and out of the top ten largest cities, only New York City and Houston saw positive ridership numbers.

Even those two outliers only claimed 0.4 and 2.3 percent increases in ridership, respectively. 

This can be attributed to a number of factors like alternative modes of transit, such as ride-hailing services and lower gas prices. Also in 2016, the Federal Highway Administration released numbers saying that driving mileage has increased again for the fifth straight year. Americans would rather drive than park and ride a train—a big surprise.

Those who support government rail claim to be about progress – yet in the case of passenger rail – they want the government to force taxpayers to subsidize an 18th century technology that more than 95 percent of motorists don’t want or use.

Americans should applaud the administration for its effort to return local control and accountability for transportation spending back to local taxpayers.

After all, with $20 trillion in outstanding debt, the federal government doesn’t have any money to waste.

Ross Kecseg and Charles Blain are the directors of the Metroplex and Houston offices for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, respectively. Empower Texans is an Austin-based non-profit service organization.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.