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“Only Fix Things After The Worst Has Happened”: The Conservative Case For Strengthening Amtrak

The Amtrak crash in Pennsylvania killed eight people and injured dozens more. It has sparked much hand-wringing in the media, though its death toll is surpassed every few hours on American highways.

Still, Republicans have not hesitated in their plan to sharply cut Amtrak subsidies, recently voting on legislation to do just that. One GOP congressman called Amtrak a “Soviet-style operation,” which presumably means he would prefer abolishing Amtrak altogether.

But Republicans, as the ostensible party of conservatism, have an obligation to consider the extant fact of Amtrak, which is a critical institution for millions of Americans. By supposed conservative principles, it is not appropriate to sacrifice the current needs of existing people in pursuit of an ideological utopia.

Michael Oakeshott famously described the conservative temperament as follows:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. [On Being Conservative]

It may be the case that slashing Amtrak’s subsidies or selling it to private companies would result in an overall improvement in service at some future point. (If you care to poke around, successful national rail is operated on all sorts of ownership grounds, from mostly private in Japan to state-owned in Sweden.)

But it is inarguably true that right now millions of Americans depend on Amtrak as it currently exists. It’s a tried, factual, actually existing institution that works well enough for the more than 30 million people who choose to take it every year. Indeed, ridership is actually up 50 percent since 2000. Most of that business is done in the Northeast Corridor, where the population is concentrated enough for true high-speed rail to be a reasonable proposition (someday).

However, it’s also an institution in need of help. As I’ve written before, Amtrak faces a slow-motion emergency regarding its two tunnels under the Hudson River connecting New York City to New Jersey. They’re over a century old, and due to flooding during Hurricane Sandy, will need a total overhaul at some point in the next several years.

Back in 2009, there was a capacity expansion planned that would have alleviated the pressure. That’s out of the question now, thanks to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who bogarted some of the money so he wouldn’t have to raise the gas tax.

A new tunnel under the Hudson is by far the most important potential piece of infrastructure in the nation. Four hundred thousand commuters go through the existing tunnels every weekday. If one were to shut down (or, God forbid, collapse), the total throughput would be cut by something like 75 percent, because the remaining tunnel would have to go both ways. A great many of those people simply would not be able to get to their jobs during rush hour.

Any looming disaster like this presents a choice. A crisis might be the opportune time for reform. But it is simply preposterous to imagine that a new tunnel could be built without substantial federal support. With a likely cost of $7-10 billion, it’s probably too expensive for private corporations to even finance in the first place. (Though it was a private train company that built the original tunnels, there are none remotely that big anymore.)

So my question for all the supposed conservatives out there champing at the bit to abolish Amtrak: What say you to the 400,000 daily New Jersey commuters, or the 30 million Amtrak customers generally? On Oakeshottian grounds, I’d say that conservatives are obligated to make some accommodation of those people, regardless of their ideology about markets.

It doesn’t seem very conservative, much less responsible, to simply procrastinate and only fix things after the worst has happened — which is what’s going to happen.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, May 18, 2015

May 19, 2015 Posted by | Amtrak, Conservatives, Infrastructure | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

   

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