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Bush budget folly: Skimping on trains is bad for everyone

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Bush budget folly

Skimping on trains is bad for everyone

By  Max B. Sawicky

The time I spend trying to get home from work is an agonizing part of my day.

That’s why I hate the budget proposed by President Bush. Policies being  cemented into place now will force me to waste more of the next 20 years in  my car. The budget invests too little in transportation and neglects mass transit. Particularly egregious is its drubbing of Amtrak, the passenger-rail system so vital to the Northeast Corridor.

The latest Census data available put my region third in the nation in average travel time to work. Somebody is always going to be above average, but it should be possible to push the average down, it is hoped with my area  leading the way.

Where I live, Amtrak is pretty important for longer trips. Right now it  takes me about four hours to drive from Maryland to New Jersey to visit my mother. Without Amtrak and with more cars on the road, I’m sure it would take much longer. Where you live, highways may be more important than rail. None of us are well served by this budget.

We are told that enormous deficits appearing since 2001 result from over-spending. Under the rule of a Republican president and Congress, it is true that spending has increased.

The bulk of the increase is attributable to defense and homeland security, but all of the increase has been unfunded — unmatched by tax revenues. The federal government gave some people back some of their money, but at the same time it ran up debt in all the people’s name. We the people will be picking up the tab.

Whatever favor spending has enjoyed, little will be going to mass transit or rail. The Bush administration proposes to cut funding for urban mass transit by 8 percent in 2005.

Grants to the states for transportation will just keep up with inflation, which means that any extra cost will have to come from state and local taxes, and tolls. Funding for the Department of Transportation rises a little in 2005, but then sinks for the succeeding four years. After accounting for inflation, transportation funding declines over the next five years in the Bush budget.

Amtrak is particularly ill served in the budget. What Amtrak needs badly is new capital investment — trains and track to bring our rail system up to the standards of other nations.

The developing nation of China is planning a high-tech, high-speed rail system. France and Japan already have them. Europe’s rail system precludes the need for a lot of automobile travel.

The Bush budget provides no resources for investment, just barely enough for Amtrak to hang on. The result is inferior service, leading people to say the system is troubled and its budget should be cut — just the opposite of a real solution.

State budgets have yet to recover from the recession of 2001, making the states unlikely candidates to pick up more of the financing load for transportation. Only the national government can ensure an expanding transportation system that keeps pace with our growing economy.

Rail transportation has some key benefits we are failing to realize, especially in light of prevailing terrorist threats.

A healthy rail system would provide a back-up option if our air travel were suddenly to shut down again. As a routine matter, rail uses oil and gas more economically than automobiles. This means less pollution, less reliance on imported oil, and a bit less vulnerability to uncertainties in the Middle East. Better alternatives to driving mean less congestion on our highways and quicker travel times.

If my steering wheel had a keyboard, I could have written this last night.

Max B. Sawicky is an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.