Bus line raises a valid question of rail subsidy

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If you want to open a can of worms, simply raise the subject of transportation subsidies, which is exactly what Maine’s biggest bus operator did last week.

Harry Blunt, Concord Coach Lines’ president, told state officials that expanding Amtrak from Portland to Brunswick may spell the end of bus service to the mid coast, according to a story in Friday’s Portland Press Herald.

The rail line has obtained a $35-million federal grant to run about 30 miles of additional track.

That’s a pretty healthy subsidy, but there’s another: Half of Amtrak’s operating costs in Maine are covered by the state’s taxpayers. And then there’s another: The federal government subsidizes the other half of the Amtrak ride.

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Some have estimated that the average train rider gets a $35-per-ride federal subsidy.

And therein lies the problem for Harry Blunt, who wonders how he will be able to continue running buses if taxpayers are subsidizing his competitor’s ticket.

It’s a good question.

But, on the other hand, don’t bus operators get a subsidy in the form of highways and roads?  And what of airline passengers, who typically arrive at taxpayer-funded airports in airplanes guided by federal employees?

Perhaps the more important question is how much subsidy each mode receives compared to how much they contribute.  For instance, car owners pay heavy gasoline taxes and tolls. Airplane passengers have fees added to their ticket prices

Well, as it turns out, that comparison isn’t easy to find, but in 2002 the U.S. Department of Transportation actually ran the numbers.

Highway travelers actually paid more taxes and fees than what was plowed back into highway building and maintenance. In fact, they contributed money toward all other forms of transportation.

Buses, the study found, received a $4.66 subsidy per thousand miles traveled. Commercial aviation got $6.18  per thousand passenger miles. General aviation, which includes business and private fliers, got $91.42 and public transit received $159.24 per 1,000 miles.

But the king of the hill was passenger rail service, which received $210.31 per thousand miles, according to the feds.

It would be nice to have a more recent comparison, but the original federal study was apparently the first and last of its kind. Some suspect that was because it raised so many embarrassing questions about our priorities.

Last year, the Heritage Foundation updated the survey using 2006 data. Highway travel, according to that survey, was getting a negative $1.01 subsidy per thousand miles, and the passenger rail subsidy had increased to $237.53.

Bus travel, meanwhile, had gone from $4.66 to $1.50 per thousand miles.

All of which means Mr. Blunt has a good point. It would be a shame to spend $35 million in federal money just to switch people from one form of transportation to another.

Perhaps the magic of train travel will induce more people and different people to hop a train for Maine.

Let’s hope so. Bus travel doesn’t have the romance of rail, and we doubt bus riders will get a more generous subsidy to survive.

editorialboard@sunjournal.com

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