Amtrak tragedy a perfect symbol of outmoded transportation policy

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Seven people were killed Tuesday evening when a speeding Amtrak train went off the rails in Philadelphia, with more than 200 injured and a dozen reportedly missing. (UPDATE: As of 12:40 p.m., the death toll is eight, with all passengers now accounted for.) Human error may be involved, but according to transportation experts, the accident would not have happened had the line been equipped with an automated “positive braking system” that is already standard on rail lines in much of the industrialized world outside the United States.

And while Amtrak had been ordered by Congress to install such a system by the end of the year, it was not given the funding needed to carry out that mandate. Instead, the day after the accident, the House Appropriations Committee voted to slash Amtrak funding by $252 million, a cut of about 15 percent.

There’s nothing new about that, of course. Amtrak in particular, and rail transit in general, have long been targets of Republican politicians. The line of attack is generally that rail and transit service ought to be able to pay for itself and even be privatized and run at a profit. If it can’t be run at a profit, it shouldn’t exist, the theory goes, even though no major passenger rail system in the world is run at a profit.

And let’s be honest: The whole “pay for itself” line of argument is just cover for what is really a cultural and even tribal distaste for rail. Rail is perceived by some as urban, vaguely leftist and even foreign. While the automobile is individualistic — and if you have any doubt, look around you in rush-hour traffic — rail is deemed socialistic and thus unAmerican. It’s not a very rational basis on which to make transportation policy, but to deny the sentiment’s existence and power is to deny reality.

Georgia is the perfect example. A long-proposed commuter rail line from Atlanta south to Lovejoy and then Macon was abandoned by Georgia officials a few years ago, even though the project had pre-approved federal funding and at one point had been embraced as a priority by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue. Why? The excuse used by legislators was that the rail line wouldn’t pay for itself, that it would require ongoing taxpayer subsidies.

That was true. So instead, “managed toll lanes” are now being built in that corridor along I-75 in Henry County. And since toll revenue from those lanes won’t come close to paying for construction and operation, taxpayers are coughing up hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize the project. Toll revenue also won’t come close to covering the cost of managed lanes that are being built along the I-75/I-575 corridor, a $1 billion project that will require hundreds of millions in additional taxpayer subsidies.**

To review: Toll lanes that don’t come close to paying their own way? Fine, pour the asphalt! Rail lines that don’t pay their own way? Abomination!

 

The same is true up in Washington, where the soon-to-be bankrupt federal Highway Trust Fund hasn’t paid for itself in years, requiring the infusion of tens of billions of dollars in general-fund revenues to subsidize it. That’s because we haven’t raised the federal gas tax since 1993, back when a movie ticket cost $4, a gallon of gasoline cost $1.15 and the average new car cost less than $13,000. Prices for all of those things provided by private enterprise have gone up considerably and we accept it as natural, yet somehow we’ve swallowed the notion that the price for government-provided goods must never be allowed to increase.

“Well, the long-term solution is not raising taxes, and the long-term solution is not continuing a system that doesn’t work,” as Sen. Johnny Isakson told my colleague Kyle Wingfield. “It’s obvious you need a reform for the entire system in which you raise revenue for the roads. User fees should be a principle underlying that reform.…”

The gasoline tax IS a user fee, as Isakson knows well. As an intelligent man, he also understands the inanity of pretending that we can raise the additional billions needed for transportation infrastructure without raising revenue, but in the Land of Pretense that is American politics, he recites the lines that are demanded of him.

It is true that rail is a largely urban amenity. But look around you — we are becoming a largely urban country. The Atlanta metro region has grown from 3 million in 1990 to 5.7 million today, with no commensurate increase in highway capacity. There wouldn’t be a place to put that much asphalt. In addition, younger Americans today are much less likely than their parents to own a car or even have a drivers’ license — thus the popularity of Uber — and real estate developers and relocating corporations are scrambling for the relatively few parcels of land served by rail in this state.

The market is speaking. It is telling us that while the automobile will still play a critical role for as long as most of us can imagine, the capacity of our highway networks and the tolerance of our citizenry for sitting in traffic are both about maxed out. Yet as a state and a nation, we are making transportation policy based on a romanticized vision of ourselves as we were back in 1975, instead of what we will be in 2025 or 2030.

—————-

** Like the existing toll lanes on I-85 in Gwinnett, the new lanes on I-75 and I-575 will be “managed” by charging so much that most people will be priced out of using them, thus reserving them for leisurely travel by the “better class” while everybody else sits in traffic. I do not know of a more eloquent symbol of the erosion of the basic egalitarian values that once defined our country.

 

Reader Comments 0

1320 comments
RLSmith
RLSmith

Amtrak should not receive one taxpayer dollar.

Why should the taxpayer be in the train business?

If there is strong enough demand for the service, then the private sector can handle.

Amtrak is the epitome of government waste.


SimpleTruths
SimpleTruths

Liberals never let a crisis go to waste.

bu2
bu2

Amtrak wastes billions every year.


They would have the money for their positive braking system if they pruned their route system and focused on the ones that make sense.

jmbCodeWriter
jmbCodeWriter

Republicans are confused, again! They seem to think that Amtrak, Roads, Schools and Big Bird are all the same and not very important! It is not necessary to ask and you don't have to wait for the proclamation. Just listen to the continuous verbiage and count the times funds are reduced but the demands are increased!

EliasDenny
EliasDenny

Don't stop telling the truth Jay since you are a lone voice in the wilderness of Georgia.

straker
straker

hamilton - "they'll vote against their interests"


On that you can rely.


Only in America.

td1234
td1234

Tavis Smiley said last night what I have been saying for years. It is the government and the "Great society" that has been the cause of the black family in this country. 


"Smiley said that he is glad to hear the president talking about poverty, and “Two parents are better than one. Let me underscore, the right two parents. But you all talk about the black family as if it just collapsed like a sort of souffle. There are reasons for the dissolution of the black family. Clearly, some folk make bad choices, but there have also been government policies that have gotten in the way. For example, there have been policies on the books for years, where if you have your baby daddy in the house with you, then the government cuts your check. They cut those resources, but I thought we wanted the family to come together, so there have been government programs that have led to this dissolution, as well as bad choices.”

LeninTime
LeninTime

@td1234 

The Great Society has been the cause of the black family? Great theory! 

KUTGF
KUTGF

@td1234  Ahhhh sweetie, you might want to read that again.  It effectively counters about every claim you have ever made about bootstrappy and cutting funding. 


By the way, were was the concern for the black family, when slave families were sold separately.  Or when laws were passed to overpolice, overcriminalize, Jim Crow, etc the black families and to incarcerate so many black males. 


But I do understand your desire for a bumper sticker and the self congratulations you want for yourself. 

td1234
td1234

@KUTGF You might want to read it again. Smiley was clear that the rules in government programs that reduce the money for having the daddy in the home is the cause for the decline in the black family. How hard is that to understand? 

KUTGF
KUTGF

@td1234 Ohhh sweetie.  I completely understand that.  He is saying don't cut the money even when there are 2 possible wage earners in the home.  Contrary to every single nonsense post you ever make, right there, "means test" boy.

Tuna Meowt
Tuna Meowt

@td1234 "For example, there have been policies on the books for years, where if you have your baby daddy in the house with you, then the government cuts your check. They cut those resources, but I thought we wanted the family to come together, so there have been government programs that have led to this dissolution, as well as bad choices.”


So since the *states* actually administer and run social welfare programs, then the *states* that instituted those cuts are to blame.  Good call.


Peachs
Peachs

Where do these Republicans get these characters that represent them?  Watching John Mica explain how it was the speed that killed last night, not the budget.  You have a guy wearing a cheap toupee lecturing the country that being cheap is fine, we have found a person to put in jail for this so life is good.  My question is why were you changing the system to a over ride system if you thought the existing system was fine?  You killed seven people dragging you feet whose relatives probably are not buying your explanation.  

hamiltonAZ
hamiltonAZ

Light rail connecting the Kennesaw campuses on down to the Galleria could attract tens of thousands of riders. But now the high line is reserved for the high end users.

The tragedy of the Lexus Lanes on the top end and East and South is that the growing underclass will complain and gripe, but when the election comes, they'll vote against their interests because, well, er, because, Obama.

Peachs
Peachs

@hamiltonAZ when Georgia was Democrat there was an agenda for middle and poor whites in that party that actually represented their interest.  Not much room in the Republican Party for any of that, they give you the religion issues figuring you will dry that pond up sooner or later, and in turn the rich control the rest making them not you richer and richer.  Poor blacks are improving their plight in life you see it everywhere you go, whites have defaulted the middle class to follow emotion, supporting the very thing that is taking the bread off their table. 

alexander2
alexander2

@Peachs are you married to Gotalife, because that is as rambling a "statement" as he/ she has EVER made..

td1234
td1234

RIP BB King. The greatest blues player of all time. 


I remember sitting at a table outside the Student center at Kennesaw State University more than 20 years ago and watching just him with Lucille play for more than a hour. One of the best musical experiences I have ever had. 


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fk2prKnYnI



Tuna Meowt
Tuna Meowt

@td1234 Co-sign.  You were indeed fortunate to have seen Mr. King play live as you did.


Times like this, I wish I wasn't an atheist.  Imagining B. B. King and Robert Johnson playing together . . . 


IReportYouWhine#1
IReportYouWhine#1

Employees of Amtrak, the publically-funded railroad service, earned themselves a round of bonuses because their agency only lost $214 million last year.

A second set of bonuses was scrapped after Amtrak fell far short of its customer satisfaction goals, according to the agency’s inspector general.

Amtrak handed out $11.2 million in bonuses as part of a short-term incentive program, which was designed to reward staff if they managed to keep operating losses under $305 million in 2014.


http://megynkelly.org/116509/amtrak-employees-get-lavish-bonuses-for-only-losing-214-million-last-year/

KUTGF
KUTGF

@IReportYouWhine#1  Wealth envy!  LOL.  You trolls are a silly bunch.  When corporations lose money, top management gets golden parachutes and large bonuses and that is just super duper with the RW cause ya know....Freedommmmmmmm.... Same with wall Street.


But ya know.....  these people dared improve Amtrak and dagnabbit they should not get bonuses because the trolls say so. 

Peachs
Peachs

@IReportYouWhine#1 every rail system in the world is subsidized except a little stretch in London going though a Buckhead type economic area. Branch out the economic welfare of this transportation, just look at the type people who were killed on this train, they were successful business people and educators going about doing what is good for this country.  The success of transportation is not measured like a value of stock it is measured by the success of a region, no doubt the northeast understands this far better than the rural south. 

td1234
td1234

@KUTGF Government employees should NEVER get bonuses. 

KUTGF
KUTGF

@td1234 Ahhh.  sweetie.  Its not a government agency.  But you keep trying.  Your policy thought is just more nonsense too. 

Peachs
Peachs

@DownInAlbany @IReportYouWhine#1 infrastructure is kind of like the church budgets, one way to lower expense is to get rid of them, which is happening by nature, is it good you be the judge...

IReportYouWhine#1
IReportYouWhine#1

The New York Times has more information:

The railroad’s food and beverage service has never broken even since it was required by Congress to do so in 1981. The losses were the focus of a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on Thursday that reflected partisan views over how Amtrak should be run.Republican lawmakers suggested that food services should be privatized. Democrats questioned the need for the hearing, saying the railroad was dealing with the losses.

According to audits by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, and the railroad’s own inspector general, Amtrak loses about $80 million a year selling food. Since 2002, Amtrak’s food service has lost $834 million.


http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2012/08/04/outrageous-amtrak-employees-likely-stealing-between-4-and-7-million-dollars-per-year/


Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

Stuff our Andy actually believes, I guess:


Spent more money in the last 6 years than all the other presidents combined 

Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

"hey, Ah dun heard the guy was doing 100mph!"

--pretty much ever rightie here trying to avoid Jay's topic.



DownInAlbany
DownInAlbany

@Visual_Cortex  No, just killing the whole premise with one shot.

When the target is that easy, you don't need two.


Peachs
Peachs

@Visual_Cortex if you had hired a drunk knowing he was a drunk and this happened you would be liable.  Instead they publicly discuss this happening, showing awareness of it and budget for it, then when it happens they pretend the discussion of it happening never happened, so Republican isn't it. 

Peachs
Peachs

@Recon2/3 well lets bring this discussion back to content, and then talk about incompetent, instead of lining Obama up against a record of competence that does not exist.  Let got back to Katrina and Iraq, lets remember 9/11 was allowing misfits on an airplane because we were outsourcing the security of this nation for the almighty budget, a event that only happen under the Republican administration before or afterwards.  

Numbers_R_Us
Numbers_R_Us

"But no cuts to obamacare funding for abortions and illegal immigrants?"


Tell us all how much money is appropriated for these lines items in ObamaCare.

IReportYouWhine#1
IReportYouWhine#1

In case you are unaware how federal spending gets approved, the house originates a bill, the senate approves it and the president signs it. No spending and no cuts can be passed without the presidents approval. 


He allowed cuts to track safety?


But no cuts to obamacare funding for abortions and illegal immigrants?


uh huh

Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

@IReportYouWhine#1

In case you are unaware how federal spending gets approved

From the guy who thinks Obama spent more than all the other presidents combined.

Good lord.

Corey
Corey

Conservatives, the cost of everything goes up. Civilization aka the delivery of governmental services, such as defense, roads and bridges, schools etc should never go up? Realy?

DownInAlbany
DownInAlbany

@Corey  As my boss (a very successful MD) says, "...we gotta do more with less..."

Liberals, have you ever found an issue that your first response is not, to throw more money at it?

DownInAlbany
DownInAlbany

@Numbers_R_Us @DownInAlbany @Corey  My salary has gone up in each of the last 5 years.  My wife's salary has actually increased significantly in the last 3 years.  We are incredibly blessed!

Your concern is touching, though.

hamiltonAZ
hamiltonAZ

So, how much of your income do you believe would be a proper tax to the government?

td1234
td1234

@hamiltonAZ 10% because it that is good enough for God then it should be good enough for the government. 

Peachs
Peachs

@DownInAlbany @Corey an MD doing more for less?  One of the opponents to Obamacare are these MD who refuse to treat patients because they are not paid enough, the US has the highest health cost in the world.  Seems to me some of those doctors indignation could be pointed toward that skyrocketing cost and if they are going to refuse treating a patient maybe refuse practicing medicine till it is fixed.