January 17, 2007

Trains, Planes, Roads and Ships

Kip calls senator lautenberg to task for calling for more subsidies for Amtrak:

How much more remedial can one make it: Amtrak loses money because people don't use it. People don't use it because people neither need nor want to use it. People are -- gasp! -- relying entirely on airplanes and roads.


So when Lautenberg says, "We cannot depend entirely on airplanes and roads," what he really means is "I get a warm fuzzy feeling from the thought of having Amtrak, and that's more important than any other use that you might have for your tax dollars."

Amtrak, roads, planes (airports), public transit and shipping are all heavily subsidized at the federal, state and local levels. Non-Amtrak trains have been historically heavily subsidized.

I don't pretend to know which mode(s) of transport would win out without tax subsidies but it is time to find out. Let's eliminate all the tax subsidies and put the mechanisms in place to assure that the folks using a particular transportation service are paying the full cost per use.

It will take time but I suspect that we will see dramatically different answers rise up than we have seen with the centralized planning of the last 150 years.

An Amtrak like service may or may not be one of the answers.

Posted by Steve on January 17, 2007

He's wrong about people not using Amtrak, at least in my area. Trains on the Northeast Corridor have decent ridership, and are packed to capacity at peak periods (rush hours; Friday and Sunday nights). Rail subsidies are a good public investment because rail transport burns less fuel and causes less pollution per passenger-mile than either automobiles or airplanes. (And the money is a pittance compared what gets spent on cars and airplanes.) Now the long-distance routes are a problem and money-loser; I would suggest cutting out some of those and leaving only a few short or medium-distance routes.

Cutting government funding for local public transportation would probably create a short-term disaster. A lot of urban dwellers live without cars. Putting the full brunt of the cost on riders could well price lower-income residents out of transportation to work.

Posted by John at January 17, 2007 7:09 PM

Hi John,

Yes, one of the commenters at Kip's site made the same point about ridership in the NE Corridor. I believe Amtrak is pretty self-sustaining there and that most of the subsidy supports the "non-profitable" runs.

I suspect that removing the subdsidies from road and air travel might well incent more folks to use trains and/or buses. Of course, it might also reduce overall travel and, thus, use of oil, etc.

Cutting government funding for local public transportation would probably create a short-term disaster.

Yes, possibly. It could be done slowly to help mitigate some dislocations. However, if done in conjunction with making sure other road users pay the full cost of using the roads or eliminating cars from many roads ridership could swell enough too minimize fare increases.

In any case, these subsidies (talking about them all) create enormous distortions in the markets, lead to significant commons problems, and are a major factor in creating pollution and sprawl related problems. Oh yea, in the case of road subsidies there is the little problem of 40,000+ deaths year...

Posted by Steve at January 17, 2007 8:47 PM
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