Amtrak Budget Axed By 20% the Day After Crash

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone Magazine says in spite of all of its trouble, Amtrak has been extremely popular among the people on the East and West Coast of the US, but not among the Republican base.

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

In a rather bizarre timing of things in Washington the House Republicans voted on Wednesday to chop about a fifty of Amtrak’s budget. This came just after the deadly Amtrak crash that killed seven people on Tuesday aboard regional train 188 at Philadelphia. The House Democrats pointed to this as a prime example of the dangers looming of cutting the nation’s transportation needs. Democrats charged that the appropriations committee’s action on its $55 billion transportation and housing bill is an example of the badly misplaced priorities.

Now joining me to discuss the state of our national transportation infrastructure is Matt Taibbi. Matt is an award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine. Thank you so much for joining us, Matt.

MATT TAIBBI, JOURNALIST, ROLLING STONE: Thank you for having me.

PERIES: So Matt, what’s going on here? Such a political misstep, day after a major crash of this sort in Washington.

TAIBBI: Well, Amtrak has been kind of a bugbear for the Republican party for a long time. It’s a government-funded utility that is heavily used by people in the Northeast corridor and in California. So red state voters have very little use for it. It’s always been a bit of a political football, and I think this situation that happened today is going to exacerbate that debate quite a bit because of the timing of everything.

PERIES: So the point is to cut public funding and try to privatize the trains even more than they already are, and boost the Republican base here?

TAIBBI: Right. I mean, that’s part of it. Part of it, again, there–the majority of people who did not step on an Amtrak train last year lived in Republican districts. The people who did use Amtrak overwhelmingly came from states like New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland. The District of Columbia. So those voters are not the Republicans’ base, obviously. And this is a, you know, Amtrak has been heavily subsidized by the United States government dating back to 1970. It loses a lot of money, and so it’s something that’s had a target on its back for quite a long time.

That said, on the other hand, it’s clearly an important part of our national infrastructure and it’s in dire need of upgrading. So there’s a place where the rubber hits the road here, where something has to give.

PERIES: Now, much research is showing that the use of public transportation is on the rise, perhaps partly due to the expense of gas and the oil prices going up over the last year. Or the environmental consciousness on the part of citizens opting to use public transportation. What is the point in cutting the budget at a time when we’re looking at transitioning from fossil fuels, and people are more alert in terms of the value of public transportation?

TAIBBI: Well, that’s sort of exactly the point. Amtrak for all of its troubles has been extremely popular in, again, in those states on the West Coast and on the East Coast. It’s seen record levels of people use its trains in recent years. So the service is getting more popular s time goes on. However, it’s more popular among a certain segment of the population. The idea of branching out and creating a whole national network of bullet trains, similar to what you have in Europe, that’s–I think that’s something that is envisioned by a segment of the legislature that’s not Republican. I think that’s not something that the Republican leadership wants to do.

So even though it would certainly be beneficial to this country, especially given the environmental situation, high-speed rail is a great solution to a lot of problems. It’s relatively safe. But politically, it doesn’t have universal backing.

PERIES: Matt, what are some of the examples out there that you can point to, either in Europe or elsewhere, where the public transportation system is par excellence?

TAIBBI: Well I think if you, anybody who lived in Europe, I can’t even remember what they call the train system there. But they, you know, clearly people all over Europe use the trains far more than we do. I used to live in Russia, and the train system that was actually built by the Soviets–I know that’s going to sound terrible rhetorically, but it was actually quite an excellent system. And people to this day use it far more extensively than we use trains here in the United States.

We are a country that drives a lot more than people do in other countries. We just don’t use public transportation as much as people do in the rest of I would say the industrialized world. So that’s something that maybe we have to consider doing as we go forward. However, you know, maybe that’s just who we are culturally. We just like cars. So you know, that’s, that’s a question going forward.

PERIES: That is true, it is the home of Ford and Chevrolet, and there is a culture of driving here that is not reflected, I think, anywhere else in the world. However, given the environmental and climate change–the indicators and the crisis we are walking into in terms of our environmental disaster, things have to change. And even in terms of the Republican point of view, it is good for business in terms of innovation, building new infrastructure, and coming up with more efficient transportation systems in the country. Why would Republicans, besides the base not supporting it, it’s not good for business. Why so?

TAIBBI: Well, I think there’s a very simple answer to that question. Before trains, the sort of hallmark of great American infrastructure projects was our highway system, which was almost entirely subsidized by the United States government. We created a highway system that was the envy of the entire world. And yet that was a public project that enormously benefited private companies, especially the automakers, also people who were involved in import-export companies, because now all parts of the country were accessible to tractor trailers.

We don’t have the same situation with Amtrak. Amtrak is a public expenditure where pretty much the only beneficiaries are going to be actual human beings and consumers. There’s no back door business interest that’s going to benefit from more high-speed rail. The only real beneficiaries are people and the environment. So you know, the people and the environment don’t have the strongest lobby in Congress. I think that’s the simple explanation for what’s going on.

PERIES: And yet the green economy advocates, part of them are in the Democratic party, and building infrastructure. And even if you were to take the Republican line, which is to privatize as you go, as they have with the toll booths for building highway infrastructure, there is benefit and profits to be made by shifting to a green economy and building our transportation infrastructure. And I’m not forcing you to defend the Republican position here. But what are they saying? What is their defense?

TAIBBI: Well, their defense is that this is an expensive program that doesn’t have–where the benefits don’t outweigh the cost. And it’s just simple, a simple budgetary issue, for them. There are a lot of people who want to move Amtrak to what they call the P3 model, which is the public-private partnership model. It’s what you mentioned where you see things like private companies that are able to make profits off of toll roads or parking meters, or parking garages. Even some airports have moved to this model.

But it’s difficult to envision how exactly that would work with Amtrak. The entire purpose of Amtrak is to create relatively low-cost travel, public travel, and if you turned over the company to a public-private partnership model then what you’re going to see is skyrocketing costs and declining, declining use of the trains. So it’s difficult to see where the profits would come from. You can definitely see where a model like that would work with commercial railroads. But it’s harder to see where that would work with commuter rails.

PERIES: Now, even as-is, Amtrak is hardly inexpensive for the regular commuter.

TAIBBI: I know.

PERIES: And with these cuts we can anticipate it, the fare being increased, not decreased. What do you think of how Amtrak is going to manage the situation?

TAIBBI: Well, as somebody who uses Amtrak a lot–I mean, I go back and forth between New York and Washington and Baltimore. I mean, I’m up and down the Northeast corridor a dozen times a year at least. And I’ve seen over the years that the price has gone up and the service has gone down, actually. There are more infrastructure problems that I’ve noticed in the last decade, and yet the price is going up. Both the Acela-type trains and the regular trains they used to use. So that’s going to be a serious problem. It’s already, as you say, extremely expensive to travel between New York and Washington or New York and Boston. So if they have to raise it even more, people are going to, they’re going to end up flying more. They’re going to drive. It’s just not going to become a useful way to travel.

PERIES: Matt, thank you so much for joining us–

TAIBBI: No, of course. Thank you.

PERIES: –on this very sad day on the Amtrak.

TAIBBI: It is. It is. But thank you for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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