OUR OPINION: Making the conservative case for Amtrak

When the talk turns to Amtrak, the arguments often are predictable, with liberals favoring the passenger-train service and conservatives opposing it.

Our Opinion
Our Opinion

When the talk turns to Amtrak, the arguments often are predictable, with liberals favoring the passenger-train service and conservatives opposing it.

But is there a conservative case for Amtrak?

There is. And as Congress turns its attention to the service in the wake of the tragic accident in Philadelphia, North Dakotans, Minnesotans and their congressional delegations should remember it.

That's especially true for Republicans in those delegations, who-as a Reuters story on today's front page points out-often want to defend Amtrak, but find that doing so puts them at odds with many of their GOP colleagues.

The case was put forward most clearly in the 2009 book, "Moving minds: The conservative case for public transportation."


In the book, authors William Lind and the late Paul Weyrich-prominent conservatives both-start by debunking the claim that driving a car is somehow more free-market friendly than taking a train.

"Weyrich, along with Lind, believed the U.S. economy worked best with as few federal subsidies as possible and as much private investment as could be encouraged," wrote Alan Ehrenhalt, editor of Governing magazine, in a 2009 column.

"The two of them looked around and saw that tax-supported aid to highways was astronomically higher than any comparable aid to subways, light-rail systems and buses. In 1980, for example, the comparative figures were $39.7 billion to $5.8 billion.

"Over the next two decades, federal transit funding never amounted to more than a fraction of highway funding. 'The current division of market share between the automobile and mass transit,' Weyrich wrote, 'is in no way the product of a free market. It reflects massive and sustained government intervention in favor of automobiles.'

"Weyrich never saw anything conservative about a traffic jam."

Here's a second reason, this one offered by co-author Lind in a 2010 interview:

"Conservatives have seen that in city after city - Portland, Ore., is only one of many examples - light rail and streetcars boost property values," Lind told

"In fact, the closer you are to a rail station, the higher your property value. The closer you are to a highway interchange, the lower your property value.


"We've seen relatively small investments - less than $100 million in the case of Portland's initial streetcar line - bring a couple billion dollars in development."

Then there's the fact that train travel is both popular-Amtrak trains carry 30 million passengers a year-and inherently conservative, in that it hearkens back to a Golden Age in American history.

"Conservatism offers a further guidepost: a predilection to turn to the past for answers to today's problems," wrote Lind in a 2010 issue of The American Conservative magazine.

"In transportation as in many things, the past was in some ways better than the present. Thanks to the Pullman Company, the night boats, our cities' excellent streetcar systems, and the fast, electric interurbans that connected cities with towns and the countryside, earlier generations weren't merely transported like so many barrels of flour. They traveled."

By the way, the streetcar and intercity rail networks that Lind refers to involved extensive public-private partnerships, despite their association with the smaller-government era that preceded the New Deal.

As David Schaengold of The Witherspoon Institute has argued, "Transportation infrastructure is a public good, and few dispute that the government should play an active role in providing it." A first-rate national rail network can be a point of national pride-and conservatives should take pride in making it happen.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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