As Roads Crumble, Will Oklahoma Waste Money On Amtrak Railway?
There's a new discussion going on in Oklahoma City and Washington DC at the moment. It has to do with the bi-partisan infrastructure bill that hasn't been passed yet, but everyone seems to already be divvying up the money. As our roads and bridges crumble in Oklahoma, politicians are getting behind a new rail line for the Sooner State.
Let us begin with the story of the Heartland Flyer.
If you weren't aware, the Heartland Flyer is a passenger Amtrak train line that runs from Oklahoma City down to Fort Worth. While the numbers of people that travel this full run show the train line isn't exactly popular, it does see a spike this time of year when the OU Sooners play Texas teams, and vice versa. It also sees a short bump in usage during the respective sales tax holidays in each state too. Outside of the small amount of people that purchase tickets just to experience train travel for a day or a weekend, the full route is rarely full of people based on this study.
Now, with the promise of some hyper-inflated free government cash, Amtrak officials and hoards of federal, state, and local Oklahoma politicians want to extend that Heartland Flyer route up to Newton, Kansas. It has many people wondering why.
Of course, on the face of it, Amtrak says it's a slam dunk in at least one local news article. At an estimated rough cost of $125-ish million dollars, this stretch of polished steel tracks could generate some $65million annually... provided they get the $1.9billion in one-time capital investments it's going to take apparently... but there's a hitch in the math here and anyone can Google it.
While building out new infrastructure is a good thing, especially when it can generate revenue, it's hard not to look past the government subsidies keeping the rail giant alive each year.
You've probably heard the term "Bridge To Nowhere" in the past... this is the same tale.
Backstory: So in the Northeast, rail travel is still very relevant and commonplace. It's the easiest and most affordable way to get a lot of people from Point A to Point B, both as a passenger and the company shelling out cash for fuel and maintenance. It makes sense in that part of the country because it's so population-dense. Towns aren't far from each other, states are smaller in size, and after a day of drinking and snorting cocaine in the Senate chamber, it's the safest way to get where you're needed the next day to campaign for reelection.
As you can see, it's handy to have rails tie places like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, DC, etc together, even though Amtrak doesn't turn a profit on any of it... and that doesn't matter either because Amtrak is technically owned by the wasteful government.
Here's a little more backstory... As the 1960's became the 1970'a, a still-booming middle class, a completed Interstate system, and America's wide array of affordable vehicles really took a bite out of railway travel. To protect the infrastructure, the government gobbled up every remaining passenger railway in America, and with the passing of the Congressional Rail Passenger Service Act, they consolidated them all into The National Railroad Passenger Corporation - AKA - Amtrak.
So what's the problem? It comes down to the numbers.
If you somehow knew all of the backstory of how Amtrak came to be, do you also know the dirty little secret of how Amtrak remains?
Of course, a government-owned business loses money. Anybody familiar with how the Army spends money isn't exactly shocked to know the government wastes quite a bit of it.
So how much does Amtrak cost all Americans? About $2billion of taxpayer money each and every year. That's a pre-covid amount, so when inflation finally settles, expect that number to rise significantly.
Those at the top of Amtrak that have faced questions pertaining to the unbelievable cost of service usually point fingers toward the United States Post Office and how much it costs taxpayers to keep it afloat... but there's a difference. The USPS is a service. Services naturally cost money and the USPS benefits and serves every American.
The real question is if Amtrak has to accept at least $2billion in subsidies each year to keep from ending service and going defunct, how will a rail line from OKC to nowhere in Kansas generate $65million a year?
Think about that.