All Subsidies Are Not Created Equal.
We all know that Amtrak continues to be under pressure from Congress to break even. There is just something about subsidizing passenger rail that makes some of the members crazy. And illogical.
What continues to frustrate me is that these same people gloss right over the fact that government subsidizes the airlines. The truth is, most of your average people-on-the-street look surprised when you tell them that. Airlines subsidized? But they’re private corporations! We don’t subsidize private companies!
We sure as hell do! The federal government pays for the air traffic control system. State and regional governments build and maintain airports. Local governments pay in a different way, too … by losing real property tax revenue on all that land taken over for airports … and they lose it forever.
But there are also subsidies paid to support small regional airports. For example, the feds shell out almost $11 million a year to subsidize operations at six small airports in the State of Iowa. On average, each of those airports handles—are you ready?—42 passengers a day. That works out to government subsidizing each one of those passengers to the tune of $118 every time they fly.
Shhhhh! Do you hear any howls of protest from all the anti-subsidy ideologues? Nope. Neither do I.
Meanwhile, the Republican governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, is opposing a proposal to extend Amtrak service for 60 miles from the Quad Cities to Iowa City, and from there to Des Moines and eventually all the way to Omaha. Annual ridership for just the Iowa City extension is projected at some 820 passengers a day. But, yes, governor, there would probably be the need for a state subsidy. How much of a subsidy? Estimates are a measly two dollars a person.
I really and truly don’t get it. How can we subsidize air travel out of Iowa at the rate of $118 a person, and object to subsidizing rail passengers at two bucks a head? And how is it possible that the elected head of the Iowa state government does not see the social and economic benefits of having three or four of the principal cities in his state smack in the middle of a rail line connecting Chicago and Omaha?