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Gutting Amtrak would hurt flyover states most

Gutting Amtrak would hurt flyover states most
© Greg Nash

This summer the White House and a handful of Congress members tried to kill Amtrak’s national network. Both the House and the Senate soundly rejected this outrageous proposal, boosting appropriations instead.

Ultimately, Congress smartly recognized rail’s vital economic role, especially in rural, less wealthy towns and flyover country communities where service cuts would have hurt the most. Appropriators in the House and Senate see that trains are a valuable investment in America’s future, and the data show convincingly that far from cutting, we should be expanding rail investment to power U.S. economic growth.

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The tired argument to eliminate the national network, which is sure to come around again in the next budget cycle, is built on the false premise that passenger rail isn’t profitable. By that standard, we may as well eliminate Interstate Highway System funding, not to mention the nation’s aviation network and waterways.

 

Reality check: no national transportation network is profitable on its own.

Between 2008 and 2016, Congress spent $143 billion subsidizing highways. That’s more than three times what Amtrak has received since it was created in 1971. Indeed, we spend more each year on road kill and salt-spreading than on running trains. For aviation, in fiscal 2016 alone some $2 billion was transferred from the general fund to support air travel. It’s hard to argue that America’s economic outlook would be better off without a robust, intermodal transportation network. And, it is foolish to think that for-profit businesses would step in to fill the gaps the federal government leaves behind.

A new economic report from the National Association of Railroad Passengers shows that eliminating train service on the “not profitable” routes where household income lags below the national average would choke off towns. In contrast, wealthy communities in the lucrative Northeast Corridor between New York and Washington would retain service — and prosperity.

The practical effect of this shortsighted idea is that 144 million American taxpayers — that’s 45 percent of our population — living in 220 communities would lose access to passenger rail service. Twenty-three states would lose all access to Amtrak. Another 12 states would experience a loss of service to some but not all stations. That’s just not fair.

Amtrak’s ”City of New Orleans,” for instance, largely serves working-class cities and towns with modest incomes. The White House proposal would drop 11 of the 19 stations served between Chicago and New Orleans. Those local economies would be further isolated from any success the national economy can muster. The same is true all along the corridor from New Orleans to New York, and from New York to Chicago. Rural, less populous states like West Virginia, Alabama and Arkansas are unlikely to be willing or able to raise enough local taxes to replace lost federal dollars, much less boost investments.

And that’s the real miscalculation in these anti-rail proposals: the missed opportunity for economic growth that trains bring. 

Another study recently released by the American Public Transportation Association surveyed 700,000 passengers between 2008 and 2015 and found that public transportation is vital to connect people to jobs, retail and entertainment, promoting economic growth across the country. The study found that 49 percent of passengers used public transit to get to work, 21 percent to shop and 17 percent for “recreational spending.” This is the kind of real-world benefit public transit gives communities. To rip that opportunity away from smaller towns is to rip away their chance at “Making America Great Again.”

By fighting back against anti-rail budget cuts and promoting the growth of not just passenger rail but public transportation as a whole, we as a nation can start to tackle some of America’s largest and most crippling infrastructure issues. 

By enhancing — not eliminating — funding for long-distance rail, significant congestion across cities and highways can be reduced, the risk of fatal accidents will decrease, fuel use will be more efficient and overall American productivity will rise. This is what it looks like to put America first, and lay the track to success.

Jim Mathews is president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the oldest and largest national membership organization fighting for more and better trains in America.