Stop railroading taxpayers

Stop railroading taxpayers

It was Billy Strayhorn, the transplanted-to-Pittsburgh composer and writing partner of Duke Ellington, who helped to romanticize passenger rail traffic in its golden age with “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

But in post-World War II America, the more convenient automobile and efficient buses quickly rose to prominence.

Yet politicians of all persuasions continue their adolescent crushes on passenger rail in this country through Amtrak, the pseudo-private but, in reality, nationalized rail service that disserves so many passengers (including those in Western Pennsylvania) with a seemingly bottomless pit of taxpayer dollars.

That sad fact is reflected in the $66 billion in new subsidies found in the U.S. Senate’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill. But throwing billions more at this multibillion-dollar failure will only result in an ever-larger failure.

For as The Wall Street Journal notes, “a half century of experience shows why the government should never take over a private business.”

“Congress has dictated Amtrak’s business model—from where and when trains run to whether and when workers may be laid off,” a Journal editorial reminded. “Amtrak has never recorded a profit, despite heroic efforts by patriotic executives with private experience who have tried to install best business practices amid political obstacles.”

Even in its busiest corridor in the densely populated Northeastern United States, Amtrak, while covering its operating costs, can neither maintain nor upgrade its trains, the newspaper reminds.

And travel times? They remain a joke; on some routes, it’s three times as fast to drive by car. That would the case if you’re traveling from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.

It is this invest-in-failure government philosophy that has trickled down to local mass-transit agencies, such as the Port Authority of Allegheny County

Think of a light-rail system extension to Pittsburgh North Shore that magically came in “on budget” — but only after a “spine line” to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center was excised. And that “on budget” cost? The same total as the original estimate with the spine line included.

Neat trick, eh?

And then, in order to prove the “success” of the finished North Shore Connector, the Port Authority had to bribe the public with free rides to use it.

(Or consider the out-of-whack cost of the Port Authority’s bus service. In some metrics, it rivals the costs of those much larger, including those in New York City.)

It was in his excellent 2018 expose on the fallacy of modern rail travel that passenger train aficionado Randal O’Toole put it best:

“Although we might want great trains in our fantasy of what the world should be like, the reality is we don’t need trains,” he wrote in “Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need.”

“Most Americans don’t ride the trains we have, nor would they ride them even if they met some arbitrary definition of ‘great.’

“We love passenger trains, and we will remember them in museums and tourist lines,” O’Toole further noted. “But if the government stays involved in transportation at all, it should be to prepare for the next revolution in transportation, not to try to reverse previous ones.”

It’s time for federal and state governments to get on board – but not passenger trains. For it’s past time to stop railroading taxpayers.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).