All Aboard: Why Now Is The Time For Federal Investment In Passenger Rail

Amtrak served a record 31.2 million customers in 2012, a 55 percent increase since 1997 that makes it America’s fastest-growing method of transportation, according to a new study from the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation. Nearly all of the growth took place on Amtrak’s shorter routes, especially in the Northeast Corridor that connects Washington D.C. and New England.

The growth in rail travel has generated calls to boost investments. But those efforts have been spurned by Republicans both in Congress and at the state level who object to government subsidization of Amtrak, which receives nearly $1.5 billion a year in subsidies from the federal government.

That focus, however intense, is misguided and ignores the heavy spending on other forms of travel in the United States. The Department of Transportation’s 2012 budget included more than $70 billion for highways and $18.7 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration, but just $8.3 billion for the Federal Railroad Administration. Over the last half-century, the U.S. has spent far more on highways and air travel than it has on railroads:

Much of the spending on roads, highways, and air travel is financed through user fees, but the government has also subsidized other forms of travel. In the last four years alone, lagging user fees have forced the government to provide the Highway Trust Fund with more than $50 billion, more than it has spent on Amtrak since it started in 1971. The airline industry has depended on numerous federal bailouts and government support for construction, security, and more affordable ticket prices.

Amtrak could be more efficient, but it also now covers 85 percent of its operating costs and its per-ticket subsidies are largely in line with other industries. America has always subsidized travel and transportation to make it safer and more affordable and to foster commerce and economic growth, and with overall borrowing costs low and Amtrak breaking ridership records nearly every year, the government should be focusing on how to improve and expand rail transportation, not on cutting what little money those projects receive now.