City Journal Summer 2014

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Summer 2014
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Benjamin A. Plotinsky
The Bus Market Booms « Back to Story

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Mr. Plotinsky writes a good article, but I think attacking Amtrak is wrong here simply because all forms of transportation - bus, train and plane - are federally subsidized. Also whatever form of transport one takes will depend on that persons means and personal choices. My personal choice is to take the train over the bus because you can walk around on the train. I rode Amtrak's Acela service; although it carries a premium price, I am willing to pay for it again because it provides the amenities I desire during travel.
Great book on conservatives and rail transit:
http://www.amazon.com/Moving-Minds-Conservatives-Public-Transportation/dp/0982527306

Here is a video interview with Mr. Lind: http://www.streetfilms.org/williamlind/

While I certainly can be convinced that the labor agreements for Amtrak are overly lavish, this commentary overlooks that the buses do in fact receive a healthy subsidy: unfettered access to our interstate highway system. While they certainly do pay some tolls, these bus lines aren't tasked with maintaining their own right of way. With the exception of a couple of tolls, taxpayers generally bear the cost to build and maintain roads. As a frequent user of the Boltbus to commute from NYC to Boston, I do appreciate the low fares that this competitive landscape provides. However, if we didn't ask Amtrak to maintain its own right of way, but merely operate the trains, and took for granted that the public sector would maintain the right of way at little or no cost to Amtrak, perhaps fares indeed would be lower.
Ben writes: "I'm pleased to see so many writers pointing out, correctly, that the government subsidizes auto traffic as well. What they don't seem to realize is the enormous difference in ridership."

Well, of course Amtrak comes out on the bottom. 1. It's not as widely available, and 2. It's required to at least *try* to achieve the unattainable goal of profitability.

You neglect to consider that Amtrak is operating at capacity. It can't take any more passengers without a serious reduction in service quality or a major outlay in capital spending. Demand is outstripping supply. In other transportation arenas, that would almost automatically prompt congress to spend more money on infrastructure.

Highway too jammed? Widen it! Build another one! Airplanes too crowded? Expand!! Amtrak running at capacity? Tough!
Wonderful. Yet another scathing criticism of Amtrak on the behalf of the bus/automobile lobby which, while citing the subsidy received by Amtrak, fails to acknowledge that received by the bus and airline industry.

So, Mr. Plotinsky, who pays for the roads upon which all those buses ride? Who subsidized the construction of all those airports into which all those airplanes fly?

The fact is that ALL modes of transportation, even walking, receive some form of government subsidy. I ride Amtrak whenever I can, and in the dozens of trips I've taken, my experience has been at least as positive (if not more) than taking a bus or an airplane, and almost always more than driving my car.

The point of the matter is this: Unless you ARE actually a paid shill for the highway lobby, then do your readers a service and advocate for the elimination of ALL transportation subsidies. Once you level the playing field, capital flows to where it is utilized best and history has shown that rails usually win that battle in MOST of the scenarios.

I suspect that the specter of privately run highways that have to pay property taxes and all other costs associated through the charging of real-world-priced tolls will quickly eliminate all those low-cost buses pretty damn fast.

And then you'll see more people living closer to town centers, built around train stations.
Perhaps Mr. Plotinsky has conveniently forgotten the huge Federal subsidies provided over the 50 years that made possible out interstate highway system which in turn makes travel from Washington to New York so reasonable and affordable. Would you consider that public spending wasteful as well? Amtrak provides a important service to thousands of people who otherwise would be clogging our highways or airports.
You are so wrong about intercity rail..Do you think the other modes would make anything if it were not for subsidies. The interstate highway system and aviation are heavily subsidized..I guess intercity rail deserves nothing according to you...
Benjamin A. Plotinsky responds: December 16, 2010 at 11:38 AM
I'm pleased to see so many writers pointing out, correctly, that the government subsidizes auto traffic as well. What they don't seem to realize is the enormous difference in ridership. They might refer to the following study--

http://www.environmentors.org/NLE/CRSreports/transportation/trans-4.cfm

--whose key sentences for our purposes are: "Amtrak provides about 0.3% of annual intercity passenger trips in the United States. Other major categories of intercity passenger travel are: autos, 80.8%; commercial air, 16.8%; intercity bus, 1.1%; and private aircraft, 0.6%." I'd suggest that a $1.6 billion federal subsidy to pay for a system of transportation that so few people use is enormously wasteful.
Pat brags about how her son rides the BoltBus between Penn Station and 30th Street in Philly. In other words, BoltBus passengers leech off of Amtrak by taking advantage of Amtrak's shelter and restrooms. Another hidden subsidy that makes bus travel look cheaper than it really is.
Actually, the only incompetence here is Mr. Plotinsky. He either fails or chooses to ignore the fact that the bargain buses he lauds are heavily subsidized by taxpayers. There's no way that any of the bargain buses come close to paying the cost of the infrastructure on which they operate. On the other hand, Amtrak must pay the full cost of the infrastructure it owns in the northeast, and on other lines, it must pay the difference between the cost of maintaining a line for freight, and the higher standard required for passengers.

The difference is this: Amtrak's full costs are contained in one line item in the Federal budget, whereas the subsidies given to highway carriers are hidden in literally hundreds of Federal, state, and local budgets.

And if Mr. Plotinsky had done any kind of research, he would have found that Amtrak's labor contracts and costs are, to a great degree, legacies of the contracts and costs it inherited from the *privately owned* freight carriers.

The facts are simple: Every commercial passenger carrier in the US, whether rail, highway or air, is heavily subsidized by the public. The sooner that the extreme right learns that, the sooner we can start developing a rational national transportation policy.
Den, your math is wrong. Here in Buttplug our exchange only cost 4 million and it generates 8 million in local spending. And the majority of hard working Americans don't live in city centers and could give a flying f*** about strengthening them. Just another case of us poor hicks financing the whims and welfare of people too stupid to get out of "town".
I'd also like to add that trains, properly deployed and managed, can strengthen city centers, the economic engines of human life and civilization. Over- reliance on roads and highways is, on the other hand, wildly destructive and dissipative to those same downtowns. As evidence I cite the second half of the twentieth century.
These jitney services, as impressive as they may be from an entrepreneurial perspective, are living on borrowed time, because at some point (one hopes) the powers that be will recognize the economic unsustainability of current practice, and roads will be downsized or downgraded, and/or higher fees will be charged for their use.
For 1.3 billion dollars you can have a freeway interchange in Buttplug ,Oklahoma, or a year of crappy national rail service.
Private passenger rail was put out of business by the government's interstate highway system, now private bus companies will be put out of business (maybe, probably not) by government rail. That's history, it rhymes. This article is a crybaby. Does Plotinsky own shares in an oil company or something?
My son takes the BoltBus from Philadelphia to New York and back almost every weekend. It's cheap, reliable, comfortable, and it goes from the exact same spots as Amtrak: from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia to Penn Station in New York.

We shouldn't forget that the taxpayers don't just subsidize Amtrak: we also subsidize highway users. But all in all, I think we get more bang for our buck with the highway dollars.
Let's not kill the lawyers, just the law -makers. They proceed from the self-serving positon that government knows best, can do it best, and can save the world. Next in line would be the Carter-created Departments; Education, Energy, etc.etc. Nothing expands like a newly-created bureaucracy, and they stick like a barnacle. Most of Carter's handiwork has been make-work, at the expense of a free marketplace. Only the successful greedy can afford to make the cloak room deals, and the lawyers to defend them. The little operators watch their hard-scrabble enterprises float out to sea.
You got it backwards, Benjamin U.S Department of Transportation studies show that half of all highway expenses are paid for from general funds, not gas taxes and tolls. Commercial vehicles can cause more than four times the damage to roads than a passenger car, so buses are heavily subsidized indeed. Although the North East is an exception, most Amtrak routes are on freight railroads. They pay taxes that subsidize the road network, a subsidy that dwarfs the puny amount spent by Amtrak
There is a reason that trains are subsidied. They can never make the money back that is spent on them. If there was any money to be made entrepreneurs would be running trains all over the country. They died out when I was still a teenager and that was a very long time ago.

I don't think anyone is missing the point. Most European countries are socialist. We aren't or never used to be. They're doing such a great job over there of everything that there is rioting in the streets in Spain, France, Greece, U.K.and I do believe the only one not having riots so far is Germany.

I've ridden on the AMTRAK. The food was good and the track was crappy. You can keep pouring money down the sinkhole that isthe train system in this country and there will be no end to it.

I don't believe that planes in this country are any worse than any other country and they're cheap enough to ride so that even those in the lower tier of the middle class can afford to fly.

I used to love to ride the trains but as planes became more plentiful trains lost more and more passengers until now, outside of AMTRAK there are no passenger trains.

It's called progress.

Plotinsky gives a poor comparison for public funded inter-city rail. Better to compre it with our public funded inter-state highway system, or any roads for that matter.
Take a walk on some of the side streets near the Port Authority 42nd St Bus Station in NYC; I believe 40st between B'way and 8th is good. You'll see DOZENS of little jitney buses bringing Latinos back and forth to Paterson, and a few other locations in New Jersey.

Like the new intercity buses, they are PACKED with passengers.
The shame of it is, is that they look at high speed lines cause that's what impresses them when they are in EU, but what I never understood is why "they" didn't subsidize some of the rural rail lines that would make a difference in efficiency, costs, green aspect, road deterioration due to over weight trucks, etal but instead turn those right of ways into bike paths (which I use and like).
California recently received a whopping stimulus intended start building a high speed rail line, south to north. To date, feasibility has only been established for the central portion that is likely to experience the least traffic. This reflects the enormous clout of the eternal rent seekers infesting the Capital.
Another 'know it all' Amtrak hatchet job. When will people realize that EVERYWHERE else in the world passenger trains are regarded as a SERVICE, not a profit making business? Would the writer like the police and fire departments to make a profit? Whilst he bemoans Amtrak's funding, MOROCCO is initiating a high-speed train, RUSSIA and Finland just ran their first cross-border high speed train, etc, etc,etc. Today's newspapers indicate that the airlines in the U.S. are inferior to those of other countries, yet the writer of the article continues to miss the point. And that point is that the U.S.A. is sliding into 'Second Tier' status, partially because everyone wants a it all RIGHT NOW, and no one wants to prime the pump.