Hey look, the state’s talking about boosting passenger trains! Cue the Republican Outrage Machine.
The [Vermont] Agency of Transportation has issued its first statewide rail plan in nearly a decade. The proposal envisions new passenger routes to Burlington, Montreal, Manchester and Bennington…
… The combined price tag for the 20-year plan totals $665 million, well more than the $380 million in state and federal funding anticipated over the same time frame.
I can hear it now: a waste of taxpayer dollars! Unconscionable subsidies for a bygone system! Passenger rail serves only a small affluent clientele of train buffs!
Republicans, after all, have been trying to kill Amtrak for years because they believe passenger rail should pay its own way.
Which sounds nice in theory, makes a good sound bite. Problem is, there isn’t a transportation system of any kind that can stand on its own two feet. They all require massive subsidization.
Roads and highways, well, that’s easy. Construction and upkeep is entirely a taxpayer-funded enterprise, with the very occasional exception of toll roads. If we actually apportioned the costs on the basis of usership, the cost of long-distance trucking would go through the roof. Cargo trains would suddenly seem like a bargain by comparison. And if inter-city commutes reflected their true costs, well, let’s just say CCTA would have to greatly expand its LINK service.
But air travel is the big enchilada. An airport manager once told me, “Airports inherently lose money.” The infrastructure and security costs are borne by taxpayers, most of whom rarely or never use the facilities. (Talk about taking from the poor and giving to the rich.)
If the price of a plane ticket reflected the actual cost of the trip, let me tall you, Amtrak would look like a bargain. Rail subsidies are a drop in the bucket compared to the sweetheart deals freely given to aviation.
Case in point: Back in 2012, I wrote a blogpost at Green Mountain Daily about the Lebanon, NH airport, which is a perpetual money-loser. It receives massive federal subsidies; its only passenger carrier gets a huge federal grant for serving an otherwise unserved market; and even so, the airport runs a deficit that has to be underwritten by city taxpayers. Without the federal subsidies, the whole enterprise would collapse. Yep, Lebanon Airport is a big fat lazy welfare queen.
The real reason for all this is not passenger service — it’s civil aviation. With extremely rare exceptions, air travelers don’t need Lebanon, which is roughly an hour away from two better airports, Manchester (NH) and Burlington. No, the people who need Lebanon are the owners of private planes, almost entirely corporations and rich people. And what do you know, they have the best lobbyists fighting for their government subsidies, so they get what they want.
So the next time some Republican complains about “taxpayer subsidies for trains,” give ’em the horse laugh. If we didn’t have a national policy of starving the rail system while throwing big bags of loot at highways and airports, passenger rail would be a thriving and relevant enterprise. With a much smaller carbon footprint than its well-funded competitors.