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Category: travel

Trains and transportation subsidies

[ 96 ] January 31, 2013 |

In 2008, the Passenger Investment and Improvement Act was passed and signed into law. An unfortunate feature of this law was a provision to sunset Amtrak subsidies for shorter routes (those under 750 miles from endpoint to endpoint), requiring the states (most of which already cover a part of the subsidy) to cover the costs of those routes. This means that federal funding for Amtrak going forward will focus more on subsidies for the less useful, less efficient long distance routes, many of which offer an expensive sort of “train cruise” experience for niche market of wealthy train aficionados*and little use for anyone else. Meanwhile, efficient services with times already competitive with driving between (for example) Chicago/Milwaukee, Portland/Seattle, Sacramento/Bay Area, and Albany/New York will soon cost those states more money to support. The good news is several of these trains have been steadily increasing their farebox recovery rates and as such the needed subsidy has been declining. This is true systemwide, the needed subsidy is as low as its been since 1975. It’s possible that if this law were to go into effect in 5-10 years rather than now, it might not even be necessary for some of these routes, as 100% farebox recovery is not implausible. But as it’s hitting now, in a time of austere state budgets, even the trivial subsidies currently needed might be a touch battle. Some thoughts on Cascades’ future from the always wonderful Seattle Transit Blog.

This law is a very small example of the truism that Republicans claim government doesn’t work, and set out to prove it. It will focus Amtrak’s subsidies on long distance routes like the “Robert Byrd limited,” AKA the Cardinal, a train that meanders three times a week from New York to Chicago in a cool 30 hours, with stops in approximately 437 small towns in West Virginia, while passing through a major population center, Cincinnati, in the dead of night–in other words, the sort of line that’s always going to rely on a hefty government subsidy to exist. This law is designed not so much to save Amtrak money, but to make Amtrak look more like what Republicans claim it looks like.

I was inspired to write this post when I stumbled across this excellent post:

A new report from the Tax Foundation shows 50.7 percent of America’s road spending comes from gas taxes, tolls, and other fees levied on drivers. The other 49.3 percent? Well, that comes from general tax dollars, just like education and health care. The way we spend on roads has nothing to do with the free market, or even how much people use roads.

“Nationwide in 2010, state and local governments raised $37 billion in motor fuel taxes and $12 billion in tolls and non-fuel taxes, but spent $155 billion on highways,” writes the Tax Foundation’s Joseph Henchman. Another $28 billion of that $155 billion comes from revenue from the federal gas tax.

Even more interesting is to compare roads to Amtrak, a favorite target of self-styled fiscal conservatives in Congress. Amtrak recovers about 85 percent of its operating costs from tickets — a relative bargain compared to other modes. Even accounting for capital costs, Amtrak — which operates mostly on privately owned tracks — covers 69 percent of its total costs through ticket prices and other fees to users.

I was immediately annoyed with myself, because while I know that the driving equivalent of user fees (gas taxes and tolls) don’t come close to paying for roads, and that Amtrak’s subsidies are modest and declining, but I never but these two things together in my mind; a certain sort of right-wing narrative about trains had colonized a part of my mind; even though I knew better, I hadn’t been able to put those facts together to make this clear and obvious point–drivers are subsidized at a higher rate than train passengers, and this is true even before we consider the public health and environmental externalities from driving.

In other transit news, a toll is being considered for I-90 across Lake Washington. Residents of Mercer Island (per capita income, $124,000; median home value, over $1 million, lacking many basic services a town of 20K very rich people might have due largely to extraordinarily restrictive zoning laws) compare this development with turning their home into “Alcatraz.”

*To be clear, I’m not deriding said aficionados.  If I were rich I would definitely be one of these people. One of these years, when I plan far enough in the future to get a decent room rate, I’m going to take the Empire Builder to Seattle. But our transit subsidies shouldn’t prioritize such things.


A little rain…

[ 0 ] August 8, 2007 |

…and the whole NYC subway system collapses. This for the greatest city in the world? Just pathetic.

6:55 AM, Daytona Beach

[ 0 ] June 4, 2007 |

Back From Santa Fe

[ 0 ] May 27, 2007 |

New Mexico sure looks different than Kentucky:

It rained or threatened to rain for ten consecutive days, which I’m told is unusual. In any case, I’m happy to be back, although the traffic bump that accompanied my vacation has enhanced my sense of personal irrelevance. Thanks to Rodger for his fine, well-thought out posts, and thanks to Media Czech for demonstrating a capacity for uniting Left Blogistan that I had thought only George W. Bush possessed. Rodger can be found at both Duck of Minerva and Rodger Payne, and Media Czech can be found at Bluegrass Roots.


[ 0 ] April 13, 2007 |

This is perhaps the stupidest question I’ll ever ask on this blog, but here it is:

Which of the following layover scenarios strikes y’all as the least hideous?
(a) Eight hours in Cincinnati;
(b) Six hours in Atlanta;
(c) Nine hours in Seattle.

Each option gets me back to Juneau at the exact same time, and each flight requires that I leave Richmond, Virginia sometime between 6-7:30 a.m.

I’ve spent a lot of time at Sea-Tac, and so I’m inclined to take that option and try to bullshit my way once again into the Alaska Air board room, where the free booze and snacks will shower over me like a ruptured pinata. But I’ve never hung out much at CVG or Hartsfield-Jackson, so I want to make sure I wouldn’t be missing anything really cool (e.g., Ms. Pac-Man machines, hookah shops, Cinnabon, etc.) if I went with Door #3.

Mount Rushmore

[ 0 ] July 31, 2005 |

Going to Mount Rushmore cost me $8, about an hour, and a fair amount of aggravation, but, hey, when am I going to be in South Dakota again?

It occured to me while observing the monument how fortunate we are that Gutzon Borglum didn’t have an affection for Andrew Jackson, William Howard Taft, or some other less than luminous president. Washington and Lincoln are incontestable, and Jefferson’s status as a Founder makes up for any deficiencies in his presidency. They have the wrong Roosevelt, of course, but I’m uncertain who would have been a better choice in 1924.

Interesting historical note: Gutzon Borglum’s decision to work on Mount Rushmore almost spared us the grim neo-Confederate nightmare at Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Borglum left Rapid City with great enthusiasm for the new Rushmore project and promises of support from Norbeck and Robinson. Reluctantly, he returned to Georgia to face the lingering problems of his Stone Mountain project. By February 1925, the confrontation had peaked; the Stone Mountain Association’s board dismissed the sculptor from the project and expressed its intention to hire another artist to complete the giant sculpture according to Borglum’s models and drawings.

Borglum was incensed. He rushed to Stone Mountain, ordered the destruction of his working studio models, then raced up the mountain and sent models of Lee’s shoulders and Stonewall Jackson’s head crashing to the base of the cliff.

What followed was a wild-goose chase by the Georgia police, who held a warrant for Borglum’s arrest. As they hightailed after him, according to Borglum, the deputies even took shots at his fleeing escape vehicle. In any event, while leading newspapers traded jabs over the affair, Borglum reached safe haven in North Carolina.

That monument, unsurprsingly, has served as a rallying point for the Ku Klux Klan since the 1920s, and earned a mention in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

All about the heritage, I guess.

Anyway, Mount Rushmore is quite impressive. Trouble with my truck prevented me from visiting the Crazy Horse memorial.