Amtrak: Constantly Running Deficits but Considering Giving Free Rides to Writers

So fun, so free!  Amtrak is currently considering offering a writers’ residency program for writers seeking inspiration-inducing-solitude by traveling through the countryside on an Amtrak train.   Providing a “unique environment for creative thought,” the program will be free to boot.  Exciting, right?  The folks at the Huffington Post think so:

Thanks to novelist Alexander Chee — who recently expressed his wish to see Amtrak begin a writer’s residency — the railroad service is about to offer exactly that, thus exciting writers everywhere.

The nascent program hasn’t been fleshed out completely, but officials at Amtrak appear willing (if not just as excited as we are) to see through the residency’s success.

Hate to burst the bubbles of writers and HuffPo alike, but let’s think about this potential program in realistic economic terms.  (We’re not operating in the parallel universe of a fiction novel where the laws of economics don’t apply, though President Obama seems to think we are, from the looks of his recent proposal for the next federal highway bill.)

Amtrak is not a privately-run company that can more or less do what it pleases with its money.  If it were, Amtrak activities would not directly affect federal taxpayers, and this blog post wouldn’t exist.

Though Amtrak’s financial situation has seen improvements in recent years, in fiscal year (FY) 2013, taxpayers funded Amtrak’s federal operating and capital (equipment) subsidies at over $1.4 billion. For FY 2014, federal subsidies total $1.39 billion—with $340 million in operating subsidies and the remaining $1.05 billion in capital subsidies.

Amtrak’s own Budget Request Justification for FY 2014 demonstrates the company has had operational deficits every year since 1975.  Until they’re operating as a private company without federal subsidies, it’s not the right time to start providing “free” services to anyone. They’re certainly not “free” to the American taxpayer.  The Heritage Foundation’s Emily Goff explains:

While not much money would be spent on this “writers’ residency” program, it sends the wrong message to taxpayers: we’re going to pick winners and losers with your money by handing out freebies to a few lucky people. That sounds more like the lottery than a passenger rail service. Instead, Amtrak should be resolutely focused on reigning in its operating costs even further, to eliminate the federal subsidies it receives for operations—operations that include rides for writers. That is something for which taxpayers could cheer.

Then again, an idea this outlandish might be expected from a company that’s lost millions serving free wine and steak—a freebie that, fortunately for taxpayers, has stopped.

Julia Quinn, social media director for Amtrak, said there’s been “overwhelming demand” for this program to become a regular Amtrak operation.  But with April 15 just around the corner, it’s unlikely American taxpayers will be “all aboard!” with the idea.

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Free Amtrak rides for writers? Taxpayers subsidizing Amtrak should be concerned.

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Amtrak has perpetual deficits. It probably shouldn't consider giving free (taxpayer funded) services.

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Free Amtrak rides for writers sounds nice until you remember the taxpayer subsidies paying for them.

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