Rethinking Amtrak

If our nation were ruled by cold logic, we would not have Amtrak. It makes no economic sense. But we are ruled by Congress, and so we do have Amtrak and have had it for 35 years.

There are periodic attempts to kill it, the most recent by President Bush. After colluding with the Republican Congress to spend record amounts of money, the president became a convert to the cause of fiscal austerity this past winter.

Amtrak’s budget for the current year is $1.2 billion. In February, as part of his budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, Bush proposed to eliminate the subsidies for Amtrak’s long-distance trains and use what was left, $360 million, to keep the heavily traveled Northeast corridor running.

The White House theory was that states and local governments and even private operators would step in to save the most desirable and useful of the threatened routes. The rest would go.

As a matter of cold logic, the president’s plan made sense. Then came Congress’ turn.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted last week to raise Amtrak’s annual subsidy to $1.4 billion. The Associated Press reported that the train-loving senators even voted against curbs on a food-service operation that loses $2 for every $1 it takes in.

In the more Bush-friendly House, the Republican leadership won committee approval of an end to long-distance service and a cut in the remaining budget to $550 million. That was overridden by the full House on a voice vote. The House then voted 269-152 to give Amtrak $1.17 billion.

The Bush administration has threatened a veto, but the lawmakers seem unimpressed. And the Amtrak money is a small part of a huge spending bill that covers lots of other government operations.

Lawmakers cite national security and environmental reasons for keeping Amtrak. But for whatever reason _ pride, pork, nostalgia, history, symbolism _ the people’s elected representatives like Amtrak and are willing to spend to keep it. And as long as they do, we’ll have a national rail passenger system and cold logic can go stand in the security line at the airport.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)