[As posted by Ed Wytkind in the National Journal]
Back in the day, a Republican president signed into law one of the greatest infrastructure investments in history, linking communities across the country through long-distance highways. It advanced the nation light years, both economically and in quality of life. It physically put the United in the United States of America.
Not all highways in the Eisenhower System are used equally. At this very moment, some are quite full with passengers and freight, others less so. But in all my years in transportation policy, I have not heard anyone suggest the federal government should tear up roads outside of I-95 and the other heavily used corridors. Of course, that would be an absurd notion but it makes a larger point: there’s been bipartisan consensus since the 1950s that modern highways – urban, suburban and rural – are essential to our economy and our way of life. The debate over the years (including in this Congress) has been how we find the resources to invest more, not less.
If ideology did not get in the way, Amtrak would be seen the same way. But the divisive, often endless debates over Amtrak funding and specifically the carrier’s long-distance routes pits states against each other in a regional squabble that does not give a single American better transportation choices or even put one more person back to work. In fact, on the latter point if Congress forced the Amtrak network to shrink the losers would be middle-class jobs, the types of jobs this slow economic recovery is struggling to create.
Without long-distance trains, 4.7 million passengers from 223 communities in 23 states (by the way, blue, red and purple states) would lose access to intercity passenger rail. They might get a little upset since they are clearly flocking to this service. Last year the 15 long-distance routes saw an increase in riders and combined had the best ridership in two decades. Or if you want to look at this through an economic — not a political lens — in deeply red Kansas, Amtrak spent $30 million on goods and services last year. In Texas, it spent $23 million.
Some in this debate argue we can’t afford to fund these long-distance routes. A better question: can we afford not to given that Amtrak’s network, including its long-distance service, serves 40 percent of America’s rural population?
This continuing drum beat in favor of downsizing Amtrak and choosing ideology over sound analysis and the needs of Americans and businesses is exactly what is wrong with Washington. They want more, not fewer, transportation options. They want smoothly functioning airports, safe and modern transit systems, ports that can keep up with our freight needs, highways and bridges that aren’t crumbling and yes, Amtrak service that will be there when they need train service – whether they live in New York City or Lincoln, Nebraska.