14 May 2015

Why is funding Amtrak such a struggle? Because Republican districts don’t use it. "Of those 184 districts, 116 are currently represented by Republicans. On average, ridership in Republican districts was about 41,000 in 2014 -- compared to 261,000 in Democratic districts."

House Republicans had planned to spend Wednesday marking up a transportation spending bill that included steep cuts to the budget for Amtrak, the federally funded passenger train service. As The Post's Colby Itkowitz noted, Congress has delayed passing long-term legislation to fund Amtrak since 2013, instead repeatedly reauthorizing existing funding levels. The last time it passed a long-term bill, in 2008, the vote passed only after a rail disaster. Which, of course, happened again Tuesday night.
The constant struggle of Amtrak to get funding derives largely from the fact that not very many Americans use the rail system. Ridership is heavily centered in the Northeast, in the corridor between Boston and Washington where Tuesday's accident occurred. But more than that, ridership is unevenly distributed politicallyData from the National Association of Railroad Passengers shows the number of passengers that get on or off the train in any given congressional district, and reveals an obvious reason why Republicans might not be too concerned about funding the system.
Much of the heavy usage hugs the coasts; California's in-state system sees decent traffic. The Upper Plains states have seen steady usage in recent years thanks in part to the growth of the oil fields on the North Dakota/Montana border.
There are 184 congressional districts in which not one person got on or off a train in 2014. Sometimes, that was a function of there being a nearby station that saw many more passengers -- like the districts in Manhattan that don't include Penn Station. Sometimes, it's for the obvious reason that there are no rail lines operated by Amtrak (like in Hawaii). But the map above shows wide stretches of the country where rail service is simply not that commonly used. (There's an interactive version of that map below.)
Of those 184 districts, 116 are currently represented by Republicans. On average, ridership in Republican districts was about 41,000 in 2014 -- compared to 261,000 in Democratic districts.
Trains are more cost effective in more densely populated areas, and more densely populated areas in the United States tend to vote Democratic. There's another level of politics at play, of course; many conservatives consider the idea of a federally funded transportation program to be anathema. And since so few of their constituents actually use the system, there's little incentive to want to offer political support.

1 comment:

  1. The plan was to shut down the passenger railroads one year after Amtrak was formed. It's managed to hang on in spite of everything, because Americans want trains.

    Just about every other country has better trains now than the US. We could have better trains too, if we were prepared to make the investment in the infrastructure. We could take their hand me downs and do a major upgrade nationwide. As usual, congress squabbles, and gives Amtrak just enough to maintain the status quo. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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