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Railroading Amtrak

May 08, 1985

David A. Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget-cutting, says that the country's only hope of fiscal salvation is riding Amtrak out of Washington on a rail.

Shutting down the subsidized national passenger train network, he says, is the litmus test for Congress. If it cannot drum up the nerve to do that, it cannot cut the budget anywhere.

On test votes so far, Congress has protected the $684-million subsidy for Amtrak's next fiscal year. Congress should continue to protect the service, if only for the 20 million passengers who often have no other way to travel except by train. It also should pay close attention to the perfectly logical argument by Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor Jr. that a smaller subsidy would mean shutting down service and laying off workers, and that most of the smaller subsidy would be swallowed up in severance pay.

What possessed Stockman to fasten so fanatically on Amtrak is a puzzle. Amtrak's trains already pay more of their operating costs than Congress intended that they should when the system was created at the insistence of privately owned railroads that wanted out of the passenger service. The subsidy amounts to 0.002% of the deficit that is now projected and a still tiny fraction of the deficit that would remain even if Congress cut everything else that the White House wants it to cut.

What is more troubling is that Stockman's argument is based entirely on numbers, some of them distorted, as though there were not 20 million real people traveling on Amtrak each year, for a variety of good reasons. Fares are cheaper than on other forms of transportation. For health reasons, some cannot fly or drive. Some cannot travel any other way because there is neither bus nor air service to their hometowns.

Stockman argues that Amtrak's subsidy is $35 per passenger, if one counts the government's tax loss when business travelers write off the cost of their tickets. Following that ludicrous argument, Stockman should be urging a shutdown of commercial aviation as well, because tax write-offs for business trips on airplanes cut government income by $33 per trip, on the average. By his logic, traveling salesmen would walk from customer to customer because the tax write-offs for business trips in cars must be truly astronomical.

The Administration argues that Amtrak serves "primarily" upper- and middle-income passengers, basing those figures on service between New York and Washington on which trains carry more than their share of commuting lawyers, bankers and well-paid government officials. Even at that, half of those travelers make less than the nation's median family income.

The federal budget must be cut. But before Stockman tries to shut down the remnants of rail passenger service he should exhaust other avenues, starting with the $109 million that the Pentagon blithely paid for defense contractors' haircuts, free lunches and other items--a bill that congressional auditors think is only the tip of an iceberg.

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