Home Transportation Why Do We Subsidize Roads But Expect Profits From Amtrak?

Why Do We Subsidize Roads But Expect Profits From Amtrak?


Amtrak's Capitol LimitedFederal, state & local governments spent nearly $193 billion on highways in 2008, recouping only about $30 billion of that in toll revenue. That means highways lost $160 billion, money we spent with no expectation of ever getting it back.

Yet when Congress spends a little over $1 billion on Amtrak, why do Republicans expect it to turn a profit?

If Amtrak is expected to turn a profit, shouldn’t highways be expected to do so as well? Why should Amtrak be asked to compete on an uneven playing field? It’s like asking Starbucks to turn a profit if Dunkin Donuts is handing out free coffee next door.

  • FairfaxInsider

    Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are private companies; no one but their shareholders is allowed to ask them of anything.

    Americans take some 400 billion long-distance trips a year; Amtrack last year had a ridership of about 30 million. Comparing roadway travel to Amtrack travel would suggest that the two are in the same category of importance; they are not. One is the most important element of our infrastructure, national defense, and commerce; the other is a luxury that has no hope of ever becoming a viable alternative to vehicular transportation, no matter how much taxpayer money is wasted on it.

    This is not to say that the government should subsidize mass transit options, but it should start (and arguably end) with bus. Buses are vastly cheaper, much more flexible, far more convenient, and are able to service a much broader customer base, plus take cars off the road when its needed most: rush hour.

    Unfortunately, bus systems aren’t as politically sexy as high-priced, heavily-subsidized, rarely used train systems, with their ribbon cuttings and photo ops. Literally every rail project in the United States has exceeded its initial cost projection and overestimated its ridership. Which makes the decision to invest funds for mass transit to rails instead of buses even more tragic.

  • Jim B

    What about all the pollution buses produce with their diesel engines? I know that the electricity needed to run the trains is polluting, but at least the riders don’t have to deal with it.

    When I was a youngster DC had a street car system that was non polluting and I could go just about anywhere I wanted to go, but thanks to congress they were replaced by those stinking buses.

  • The bottom line is that, in this country, for decades now we’ve been massively subsidizing anything and everything to do with automobiles – the interstate highway system, free parking, very cheap (by world standards) gasoline, etc. – and sprawl, while letting our urban areas and public transportation fall to pieces. Then, Republican’ts have the gall to claim that Amtrak is the one losing money, as if it’s a level playing field? It’s infuriating, but what else would we expect from those people. Grrrr.