Brain Versus Heart on Amtrak in Missouri
Rail advocates are arguing for an increase in Missouri’s Amtrak funding. They want the taxpayer subsidy for the little-used route across central Missouri increased to allow for two trains per day in each direction (up until this year, Amtrak ran two trips a day, but recent budget cuts reduced that to one trip). They sound like Loop Trolley supporters who actually argued that nobody rode it when it had partial service, but lots of people would ride if it had full service. (Spoiler: people didn’t.)
My brain tells me that the entire Amtrak subsidy should be eliminated. If Amtrak can’t stand on its own, then why should taxpayers subsidize it to such a large extent? There are numerous ways to get across Missouri, including cheap flights and busses for those who don’t drive.
My heart tells me that there is nothing wrong with compromise in politics, and I think the current compromise to fund Amtrak enough to guarantee one trip per day is a good one. In the past, I have argued in support of a limited subsidy for passenger rail service across Missouri. I do believe it is important to have that alternative provided. We subsidize all types of transportation, including cars. There is a public good aspect to having a variety of transportation options available to people.
The lawmakers set the figure in May, about the time an executive summary of a state-commissioned Cambridge Systematics economic impact study revealed that the four trains each day provide $208 million in annual economic activity, and more than $22 million in tax revenue Missouri would not see if the Runners didn’t run.
I have to be honest here. I don’t believe those numbers; not in the slightest. Like similar studies, this one makes use of exceedingly generous statistics. From the summary of it available online (emphasis added):
Amtrak’s . . . spending in Missouri yields the following direct, indirect and induced economic benefits….
The key words are “indirect” and “induced.” The authors of the study are likely using a robust and flawed multiplier to make assumptions about the tax revenue and economic activity that don’t withstand scrutiny.
Beyond those issues, some of the arguments in favor of a larger subsidy and two trips a day are simply weak (from the St. Louis Post Dispatch article linked at the top of this piece):
Tammy Bruckerhoff, the tourism and economic development director for Hermann, said the line is vitally important to draw tourism to the smaller towns along the route.
There are hundreds of small towns in Missouri. I fail to see why a half dozen of them along the Amtrak route deserve a subsidy for their tourism efforts, which mostly revolve around bacchanalian celebrations of excess (which are awesome, I admit). Do we subsidize Party Cove in Lake of Ozarks? I sure hope not (also, we don’t).
$10 million a year is a generous subsidy to keep Amtrak running in Missouri, and a compromise that I can live with in this debate. A larger subsidy is not warranted. There is no evidence that two trains per day in each direction will accomplish anything more than spending another $2.5 million (at least) in taxpayer money. You can’t wish market demand out of thin air, whether it’s for a trolley, a streetcar, high-speed rail, or Amtrak.