Happening Now

Politico to Heartland America: ‘Drop Dead’

April 9, 2021

by Jim Mathews / President & CEO

A little more than a week after President Biden proposed spending $80 billion to make our trains better again as part of a $2.1 trillion infrastructure-based stimulus package, the steely knives are already out. This time, the knife-wielder is Politico’s top policy writer Mike Grunwald, and he does his best (perhaps unwittingly) to embrace the caricature of an out-of-touch coastal elite:

“With all the chronic problems facing Amtrak’s existing network of slow and sporadic trains that struggle to attract riders and revenues, why should it be a national priority to extend the network to sleepy communities like Christianburg, Va. (population 22,163) or Rockland, Me. (population 7,178)? Is North Carolina really clamoring for service from Asheville to Salisbury? Is there any reason for Amtrak executives to propose a new route from New York City to President Biden’s beloved birthplace of Scranton, Pa., other than the obvious reason?”

Well, don’t tell that to the 36,383 students who attend Virginia Tech only eight miles away in Blacksburg. Maybe he didn’t know that, since he also apparently didn’t bother to learn that Christiansburg has an “S” in it. And yes, Mike, plenty of people are clamoring for service from Asheville to Salisbury, in the form of a group of current and former elected state officials and transportation planners organized as the Western North Carolina Rail Committee.

And Scranton? Mike, are you serious? Do you really think the only people traveling to and from Scranton are there to find the fictional offices of Dunder Mifflin Paper Co.? Scranton is part of a larger population center that includes Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton, with several colleges. Its share of disabled or handicapped residents is nearly 60% higher than the U.S. overall – people with powered wheelchairs and medical oxygen and vision problems and lots of other reasons that make it hard for them to fly or drive.

Grunwald's contentions are wildly off-base. He trots out the same tired old elitist arguments we’ve heard year after year after year from people who mostly don’t know better but also from a handful people who do: Amtrak should focus on profitable routes that serve dense places. He smugly dismisses Amtrak’s vision for 2035 as merely a political “desire to keep spreading rail money around like peanut butter — to plausible destinations like Las Vegas and Phoenix but also to head-scratching destinations like Allentown and Cheyenne, which would make Wyoming the 47th state with a station.”

Then he gets to the heart of it, declaring that “before Amtrak fantasizes about new lines to Pueblo, Colo., and Eau Claire, Wis., it ought to focus on upgrading its most important and successful line, the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.” He gratuitously notes that “it’s the only Amtrak route that runs an operating profit.”

First off, Mike, Amtrak’s plan actually does upgrade the Northeast Corridor. Significantly. Amtrak would attack the Gateway problem head on, continue investing in new rolling stock and add frequencies. Second, when you include capital and infrastructure no travel modes are profitable – not roads, not aviation and not rail – but apples-to-apples there are “profits” to be made south of the District line. Amtrak’s Virginia service is profitable using the NEC yardstick, generating $17.58 in profit for every Virginia passenger and boosting Virginia’s overall economy by $1.4 billion each year. That’s a pittance compared with what’s spent on it.

Let’s be clear: there are plenty of places in the U.S. where a lot of people live and want to travel, not just the East Coast. Apart from Las Vegas and Phoenix, there are also places like Columbus, Ohio, and yes, Pueblo, Colo., destinations in Wisconsin and Duluth, Minn., and many more – 160 new destinations in all.

And we know that trains pay off for communities served, generally anywhere from four times to as much as nine times the investment needed to provide that service. Rail corridors generate value by acting as economic engines in the communities they serve—through jobs, retail, mobility, tourism and real-estate development. All of those things generate profits of their own, which are re-invested in their local communities. The “profit” goes not to Amtrak, but to the communities served, often to the tune of millions of dollars.

Grunwald’s focus on route performance is disappointing but unsurprising. He has been a fierce critic of the U.S. government’s role in financing everything from homeownership to student loans to shipbuilding and agriculture, derisively calling the U.S. government “the Real Bank of America.” Many of his criticisms have been well-conceived. But he is also famous for having written a full-throated defense of Barack Obama’s $800 billion stimulus, crediting the injection of government cash into the economy for staving off a Great Depression and criticizing Republicans who faulted that plan as cynical opportunists.

So is he arguing that it’s OK for the Federal government to spend money on things people want so long as it’s in the dense East Coast? Or is he saying that it’s only OK to spend money on things that are profitable?

Grunwald starts with the assumption we hear a lot from the general press – passing along as accepted fact the narrative that Amtrak’s problem is that it’s forced to run long-distance trains at a loss instead of short-corridor trains in densely populated areas at an operating profit. Not only is that a debatable idea, but when reporters do this a lot of other assumptions come along for the ride and go completely uninterrogated. One result is that the right conversation about rail in this country never really materializes.

The good news is that Grunwald and Politico don’t control the narrative. Within a few days of Amtrak putting up their AmtrakConnectsUS.com website, the vision map registered billions of impressions. Newspapers and TV stations around the country did stories about the potential for service coming to their communities. Our phones here at the Association rang off the hook from local officials and reporters alike.

The public conversation about Amtrak too often falls into the framing that Amtrak is supposed to behave like a private company, seeking profit. Remember, Amtrak is not required to make a profit, not in law nor in fact. And the pursuit of profit in this instance leads to the inevitable conversation about eliminating “unprofitable long-distance routes.”

Despite Grunwald’s contention that nobody cares about trains outside of the Northeast Corridor, the point of a train like the Southwest Chief – running between Los Angeles and Chicago – or the Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle is not to carry passengers between those two cities but to all of the places in-between. They are crucial to rural mobility. For many small communities, Amtrak is the only form of public transportation available. And roughly a quarter of Amtrak’s long-distance ridership is elderly or disabled and physically unable to fly (have you tried bringing a powered wheelchair or medical oxygen aboard a United Airlines flight?)

Amtrak exists, and collects public funds, expressly to provide service to places that need it and where the private sector cannot profitably provide it — where the “demand indicators” aren’t enough to satisfy private shareholders. We don’t confine the National Weather Service to issuing forecasts for the East Coast. We don’t insist that the Centers for Disease Control only track illnesses in New York or Philadelphia or Boston. We don’t tell the Air Force not to worry about defending airspace beyond Washington, DC. Amtrak is one of the many ways the U.S. government acts to support the common good, the “general welfare.” I’ve delivered this message repeatedly in House and Senate testimony, and most of Congress agrees.

Amtrak is outlining the beginnings of a vision aimed at serving nearly twice as many Americans as it does now. And they’re ready to do even more if states and cities step up to the plate and ask. Politico has kicked off an important policy discussion on whether and how the U.S. should do things that will encourage economic growth throughout the country. We think the answer is clear. It would be good for all of you reading this outside of the Northeast Corridor to tell your member of Congress that Grunwald is dead wrong. And if you live on the NEC, well it might be good to let Congress know you travel beyond the Corridor too.