A recent Kansas City Star Monday Poll (June 1) posed the question: Are you all aboard with rail? The next day, poll results were released under the title, “Let the good times roll for Amtrak passenger rail service.”
The poll results were conclusive; support for passenger rail among respondents far outpaced opposition to it. One question specifically asked about increasing funding and 75 percent felt strongly that we should; another question asked if subsidies for rail travel should end and 60 percent strongly opposed that. Results like these should be sent to the congressional delegations of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas as several important long distance and state supported trains are at risk in these states and most U.S. legislators representing these states nearly always vote against funding Amtrak.
Public support for Amtrak is consistently strong. That is reflected in steadily increasing ridership, currently exceeding 31 million passengers annually. Today, Amtrak covers 93 percent of its operating costs. This is far better than the cost recovery of aviation and highways.
So why is Amtrak singled out year after year and threatened with budgetary cuts at the federal and state level?
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For many years the Northern Flyer Alliance Inc. (NFA) has promoted restoration of passenger rail service between Kansas City and Forth Worth, Texas. There are dozens of similar organizations across America advocating for passenger rail expansion. Among the general public there is no widespread clamor to end or reduce passenger rail service. Quite the opposite.
Some elected officials spew anti-rail rhetoric, but have no facts to show widespread opposition to passenger rail service.
If long distance trains are eliminated in all areas except the coasts, it will seriously harm passenger rail service, jobs and the economic vitality in remaining areas because those routes depend on passenger connections arriving from all over the country. Fewer trains across the system reduces ridership everywhere, including the Midwest. Experience proves more trains and more stations increases ridership, which results in more jobs, more consumers in your community and greater economic vitality.
Connectivity is important, and the logic is self-evident: If a train only travels between two distant points with limited station stops, then ridership will be limited to the number of passengers boarding in those two stations.
Amtrak is shamefully underfunded, and the recent accident in Philadelphia demonstrates the lack of funds. Critics complain about “billions” that have funded Amtrak for 44 years. Here’s the truth: Amtrak routinely receives less than $1.5 billion annually, or about 3.75 percent of the annual federal funding spent on highways. The Highway Trust Fund on the other hand receives on average $40 billion from the federal government.
For decades this wrongly placed outrage has been a great distraction from what Congress should be doing, which is funding our transportation system. All of it. Not just highways and airports.
It is time to tell legislators to stop the train bashing and get to the business of investing in the infrastructure and resulting jobs that Americans want. That means more, not less, passenger rail.
The Midwest not only deserves its fair share of infrastructure investment, but the viability of the entire system depends on it.
John Fairfield is a Kansas City attorney and former member of the City Council.