What's 58 Years of Amtrak Funding Worth?

by Sean Jeans-Gail

In a disappointingly predictable move, the Congressional Budget Office has released a report on options for reducing the budget over the next ten years that identifies the elimination of Amtrak and the Federal Transit Administration. Clearly, this document was drafted as a mental exercise in deficit-trimming and will have no real impact on Congressional decision-making. Still, it’s an impressively tone-deaf recommendation, coming as it does when the average American’s commute is steadily getting worse, and the broad, bipartisan understanding that U.S. infrastructure is in crisis.

While the Amtrak cuts are mentioned merely as a line-item, the CBO goes into depth about its rationale for eliminating federal transit support:

The main argument for eliminating the FTA is that the benefits of public transit systems are primarily local or regional and should be financed at the local or state level. If the people who benefit from a transit system bear its costs, it is less likely that too many projects or overly costly projects will be undertaken or that services of low value relative to their ongoing costs will continue to be supported. Relatedly, decisions made on the basis of state or local funding would not be influenced by the greater availability of federal support for capital investments than for operating expenses.

The report drew immediate criticism from transportation leaders. “Eliminating federal funding for public transportation will drastically reduce mobility and job opportunities for Americans and will make our country less competitive,” responded American Public Transportation Association CEO Paul Skoutelas.

In fact, even the writers of CBO’s report don’t seem to have their hearts in it. The very next paragraph outlines the

An argument against eliminating the FTA is that public transit has benefits that extend beyond the area directly served. Without continued federal funding, transit services would be cut back and systems would deteriorate, leading to increased road use, with its attendant problems of traffic congestion, accidents, and emissions of local air pollutants and greenhouse gases. In turn, greater congestion could increase demand for road construction and development in outlying areas. Dispersion of economic activity to such areas, where greater distances and lower population density make the provision of transit services more costly, could reduce access to jobs by people who do not own cars.

Which is a good start, but only brushes the surface of why this is a bad idea. Regional inequality, rural decline, economic contraction, public health, and social isolation would also worsen if the we eliminated Amtrak and federal investment in transit. The fact is, interstate trains are an interstate responsibility, and no less a document than the constitution identifies it as a federal responsibility.

One last thought: this report was released at the same time as the Trump Administration is threatening to shut down the government for $5 billion for a southern border wall—which is only a down payment for a project that would eventually cost $70 billion dollars—or 58 years of Amtrak funding.