When is enough enough? During its 31-year history, Amtrak has soaked up more than $25 billion in taxpayer money, as it promised that somewhere down the line it would stand on its own feet and even be profitable.
It has never happened. And it never will. If there were any chance that what is benevolently referred to as the "nation's passenger rail system" could make money, private business would have done it years ago.
The fact is, Amtrak is a bust and a taxpayer leech that, from a free enterprise viewpoint, deserves to go out of business. For awhile it looked like this would be the week that could happen.
Although Congress pumped $521 million into the mass transit for this year, it's running out of cash. Amtrak President David Gunn said he would spend the last $40 million to arrange for an orderly nationwide shutdown of the system, at least until the new fiscal year starts in October when it will receive a new infusion of cash - about twice what it got this year. And perhaps a lot more. House Transportation Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, is proposing more than $70 billion be spent on the transit's passenger and freight infrastructure.
No one seriously expected a shutdown. Gunn's "threat" was basically a message to the administration and Congress - which they apparently got - that he'll need $75 million a month to operate until the bailout arrives.
After meeting with Amtrak's board of directors Monday, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said the rail system will not be shuttered this week, although the particulars of how to keep it rolling until October had not yet been worked out. Rest assured, they will be.
The reality is, Amtrak will continue soaking up billions in subsidies as it always has. And that's the reality the nation needs to deal with. In the past, Amtrak routes were determined in large part to make sure powerful congressmen's districts were served.
This often meant servicing rural communities and that wasn't necessarily a bad thing; for many, mass transit is the only transportation to metro areas. The subsidized rail system also gained respectability in the wake of Sept. 11 as an alternative mass transit system if terrorists shut down the nation's airports.
Finally, there's a chance that the rail service's Northeast corridor, which carries about 60,000 riders a day, could be made into a money-maker. The auto gridlock that motivates these riders is only going to get worse.
Moreover, Amtrak owns tracks and tunnels in the Northeast that are used by commuter rail services in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts. These can be revenue sources that could offset some of the subsidies.
The point is, if we're going to continue to subsidize a nationwide mass transit system, let's do it with rational, constructive policies that really serve the public and not just the powerful politicians and special interests.
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