Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Amtrak tragedy a perfect symbol of outmoded transportation policy

Seven people were killed Tuesday evening when a speeding Amtrak train went off the rails in Philadelphia, with more than 200 injured and a dozen reportedly missing. (UPDATE: As of 12:40 p.m., the death toll is eight, with all passengers now accounted for.) Human error may be involved, but according to transportation experts, the accident would not have happened had the line been equipped with an automated "positive braking system" that is already standard on rail lines in much of the industrialized world outside the United States.

And while Amtrak had been ordered by Congress to install such a system by the end of the year, it was not given the funding needed to carry out that mandate. Instead, the day after the accident, the House Appropriations Committee voted to slash Amtrak funding by $252 million, a cut of about 15 percent.

There's nothing new about that, of course. Amtrak in particular, and rail transit in general, have long been targets of Republican politicians. The line of attack is generally that rail and transit service ought to be able to pay for itself and even be privatized and run at a profit. If it can't be run at a profit, it shouldn't exist, the theory goes, even though no major passenger rail system in the world is run at a profit.

And let's be honest: The whole "pay for itself" line of argument is just cover for what is really a cultural and even tribal distaste for rail. Rail is perceived by some as urban, vaguely leftist and even foreign. While the automobile is individualistic -- and if you have any doubt, look around you in rush-hour traffic -- rail is deemed socialistic and thus unAmerican. It's not a very rational basis on which to make transportation policy, but to deny the sentiment's existence and power is to deny reality.

Georgia is the perfect example. A long-proposed commuter rail line from Atlanta south to Lovejoy and then Macon was abandoned by Georgia officials a few years ago, even though the project had pre-approved federal funding and at one point had been embraced as a priority by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue. Why? The excuse used by legislators was that the rail line wouldn't pay for itself, that it would require ongoing taxpayer subsidies.

That was true. So instead, "managed toll lanes" are now being built in that corridor along I-75 in Henry County. And since toll revenue from those lanes won't come close to paying for construction and operation, taxpayers are coughing up hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize the project. Toll revenue also won't come close to covering the cost of managed lanes that are being built along the I-75/I-575 corridor, a $1 billion project that will require hundreds of millions in additional taxpayer subsidies.**

To review: Toll lanes that don't come close to paying their own way? Fine, pour the asphalt! Rail lines that don't pay their own way? Abomination!


The same is true up in Washington, where the soon-to-be bankrupt federal Highway Trust Fund hasn't paid for itself in years, requiring the infusion of tens of billions of dollars in general-fund revenues to subsidize it. That's because we haven't raised the federal gas tax since 1993, back when a movie ticket cost $4, a gallon of gasoline cost $1.15 and the average new car cost less than $13,000. Prices for all of those things provided by private enterprise have gone up considerably and we accept it as natural, yet somehow we've swallowed the notion that the price for government-provided goods must never be allowed to increase.

“Well, the long-term solution is not raising taxes, and the long-term solution is not continuing a system that doesn’t work,” as Sen. Johnny Isakson told my colleague Kyle Wingfield. “It’s obvious you need a reform for the entire system in which you raise revenue for the roads. User fees should be a principle underlying that reform.…"

The gasoline tax IS a user fee, as Isakson knows well. As an intelligent man, he also understands the inanity of pretending that we can raise the additional billions needed for transportation infrastructure without raising revenue, but in the Land of Pretense that is American politics, he recites the lines that are demanded of him.

It is true that rail is a largely urban amenity. But look around you -- we are becoming a largely urban country. The Atlanta metro region has grown from 3 million in 1990 to 5.7 million today, with no commensurate increase in highway capacity. There wouldn't be a place to put that much asphalt. In addition, younger Americans today are much less likely than their parents to own a car or even have a drivers' license -- thus the popularity of Uber -- and real estate developers and relocating corporations are scrambling for the relatively few parcels of land served by rail in this state.

The market is speaking. It is telling us that while the automobile will still play a critical role for as long as most of us can imagine, the capacity of our highway networks and the tolerance of our citizenry for sitting in traffic are both about maxed out. Yet as a state and a nation, we are making transportation policy based on a romanticized vision of ourselves as we were back in 1975, instead of what we will be in 2025 or 2030.


** Like the existing toll lanes on I-85 in Gwinnett, the new lanes on I-75 and I-575 will be "managed" by charging so much that most people will be priced out of using them, thus reserving them for leisurely travel by the "better class" while everybody else sits in traffic. I do not know of a more eloquent symbol of the erosion of the basic egalitarian values that once defined our country.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.