Opinion: Daily Journal

Throw Taxpayers from the Train

RALEIGH – Sometime I have to wonder how people in positions of authority come up with some of their wacky ideas.

In case you haven’t heard, North Carolina is in the midst of a budget crisis. Last year the legislature hiked taxes. This year Gov. Mike Easley is tightening spending and withholding the revenues of cities and counties. Health care expenses, particularly Medicaid, are shooting through the roof, while some high-priority needs, like highways, aren’t getting the attention they deserve.

Meanwhile, the leaders of many of North Carolina’s major cities are squabbling over the future route of Amtrak trains that, if sensible minds in Congress prevail, will never run.

Two proposed routes of service, one from Raleigh to Wilmington and the other running west from Salisbury to Asheville, have been the subject of recent news stories and political controversies. A story earlier this week in the Asheville Citizen Times (click here) reported that WNC officials were remarkably calm about the fact that even as they plan for their new route, Amtrak is facing imminent financial collapse.

Meanwhile, municipal officials in Southeast NC are squabbling over which path that route will take. One option would run to the north, through Goldsboro, while another would bend southward to include Fayetteville and Lumberton, reported The News & Observer over the weekend (click here)

To everyone involved in these impassioned debates, I must ask: What are you thinking? Inter-city rail service is, at best, a triviality. At worst, it siphons scarce resources that would better be expended on means of conveyance that serve more than a few hundred people a day. (And, no, I don’t fall for the old trick of double-counting riders who travel to and from the same city). I mean highways and airports, of course, but I’d rather subsidize a bike path in Carrboro. At least it should shut up the granola crowd for a day or so.

The federal government is seriously considering plans to liquidate Amtrak or at least cut off its taxpayer subsidy (other forms of transportation, contrary to what you may have heard, do not receive general taxpayer subsidy because they are maintained through user charges in the form of gasoline taxes, ticket taxes, or licenses). A recent paper from the Cato Institute (click here) presents a liquidation plan co-wrote by Joseph Vranich, a former member of the official Amtrak Reform Council. It puts the matter succinctly:

Liquidation would force Amtrak to lay before the public and policymakers all the information about its poor financial condition and operating record. Liquidation would be the best way to stop the waste of taxpayers’ dollars and to give part’s of Amtrak’s passenger operations the best chance of survival. Amtrak’s passenger rail operations constitute a very small part of transportation today; thus bankruptcy would produce very little disruption of travel.

It’s time to throw taxpayers off of the Amtrak train – and for public officials in North Carolina to start paying attention to real issues facing our state today rather than waste their time on anachronisms of the past. What’s next, stagecoach rides? Chariot races? Mammoth hunts?