State government will have to start subsidizing Amtrak soon

Jan. 24, 2013

By Chris Reed

Congress and most presidents have long been ridiculously tolerant of Amtrak and its never-ending need for federal aid — the equivalent of massive ongoing annual bailouts. But five years ago, lawmakers actually got a little fed up. The result was a law that required states to assume the subsidies on routes of less than 750 miles that were entirely within their boundaries, beginning in late 2013.

As the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, this is already causing consternation in New York, Pennsylvania and other states, which expect to have to foot annual bills in the tens of millions of dollars.

Bullet Train Pic1Here in California, this should set up an entertaining subplot in the battle over high-speed rail. It is difficult to quickly determine what the state’s Amtrak tab will be in coming years. The lengthy PDF of the state transportation budget for 2013-14 does not include any line-item expenditures showing an Amtrak subsidy, but the funds could easily be buried within a larger category. Also unclear from looking at the Amtrak California website is how many routes the state will have to subsidize. Some of the most popular routes that end in Los Angeles or San Francisco actually originate thousands of miles away in other states and apparently will continue to get federal subsidies.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that California is going to need to come up with millions of dollars to take over the subsidies for interstate routes such as those linking Sacramento and the Bay Area, and Sacramento and Los Angeles. And the need for the state to heavily subsidize Amtrak’s in-state routes will underscore one of the oldest and strongest critiques offered by critics of California’s bullet-train project and rail projects in general: They will never break even or make money because just about no train in the U.S. breaks even or makes money.

This will be a useful reminder — one more warning that the bullet train will never be a cash cow, whatever the grandiose promises made for Proposition 1A in 2008 or made now by Gov. Jerry Brown.

I would have put that it was a “powerful reminder,” but then I remembered this insane L.A. Times editorial.

For some people, belief in the bullet train has a quasi-religious vibe. Unfortunately for Californians and for rationality in general, that includes the editorialists of the state’s largest and most powerful newspaper.

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