While Amtrak Subsidies Draw Fire From Congress, Aviation Gets a Free Pass

There’s never any shortage of calls to make Amtrak pay for itself. Republicans deride it as a “Soviet-style monopoly,” rife with inefficiencies. But as Ed Glaeser pointed out in an article for the Boston Globe last week, another mode’s subsidies are approved year after year without a peep: aviation.

Why don't aviation subsidies provoke the same scrutiny Amtrak's do? Image: ##http://www.backpackingmatt.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/airplane.jpg##Backpacking Matt via the Creative Commons##

According to Glaeser, fees imposed on airline passengers cover just 70 percent of the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget. Aviation subsidies increase if you consider the costs of the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA’s 2013 budget is $7.6 billion, of which only $2.5 billion will come from user fees.

What does this have to do with trains? Well, subsidies for air travel and roads are funding Amtrak’s competitors. (As Streetsblog has reported, just 51 percent of road funding come from gas taxes, tolls, and other fees on driving.) Cutting subsidies to rail while maintaining the others would hardly create a level playing field.

But cutting FAA and TSA subsidies doesn’t seem to get the kind of attention as the push to cut Amtrak loose. Perhaps aviation subsidies tend to avoid public scorn because air travel is widely perceived to be critical to the economy. But rail is too, and with more investment, it could be a far more widely-used and relied-upon mode of travel. And rail subsidies wouldn’t be as regressive as aviation subsidies: According to Glaeser, those who make more than $100,000 per year fly ten times more than those who make $50,000 per year.

  • reality check

    Let’s level the playing fields and let the markets play themselves out. I fly a lot and have used the train a few times domestically and internationally. I enjoy the ride and feel better/happier when I travel by rail. I’m actually sad the trip is over while I can’t wait to get off planes. Also, with downtown to downtown travel possible, rail can be faster than flying. If it worked marginally decently and some of the subsidies were balanced out, I’m sure rail would gain a large market here.

  • Isaac B

    It seemed to me that the “Amtrak gets too much subsidy” argument had faded once Americans realized how ridiculous $1.5 billion a year looks compared to two wars and the 2008 bailouts. John Mica changed his tune from talking about subsidies to saying that Amtrak needs to be privatized in order to run faster trains.

    What Amtrak supporters need to recognize, is that threats against Amtrak are not about the subsidy. They are a tactic by (mostly Republican) pols from outside the North East Corridor to squeeze support, votes and compromises from (mostly Democratic) pols along the NEC. Amtrak’s NEC is an economically critical piece of infrastructure for all states from Massachusetts to DC. Uncertainty for Amtrak means disruption for these states and the businesses located in them. NEC pols need to recognize this tactic and call pols’ bluff on it and play hardball, i.e., call them on the pork projects that NEC pols are called in to support in exchange for keeping Amtrak limping along.

  • Rich

    If you break down the congressional districts that get money in these two

    Subsidies, what do you see? I have more places are not severed by Amtrak.

  • Riga

    The airlines don’t pay taxes, at least not like they used to. Formerly, excise taxes on tickets paid for FAA and other airline related costs. Then the airlines began separating out fee (baggage, meals, larger seats, etc.) and reducing ticket prices accordingly. Now the FAA gets very little in ticket taxes, and the airlines are laughing all the way to the bank with their profitable “fees”

  • Tao Liu

    Liberals != Trains, even in the United States, especially in the North East. A good portion of the Republicans in the Northeast actually support Amtrak, because they know of its critical importance as infrastructure there.