By Donella Meadows
–December 29, 1995–
I just came home from business in Europe, where I traveled on the slick new ICE trains, to find that Amtrak budget cuts are about to cancel the two daily passenger trains that connect my valley with the rest of the country.
The European rail network serves every city many times a day; it’s on time to the minute; the trains are clean, comfortable, and complete with on-board telephones and tables upon which to rest your paperwork or computer. Professionals prefer to travel by rail, because they can work en route and arrive unjangled.
Our about-to-be-canceled Amtrak trains pull into White River Junction, Vermont, at 11 PM going south and 5 AM going north — when they’re on time. Despite the inconvenient hours, 20,000 people get on or off at White River every year, and of course we’re only one of many stops.
The nationwide 20% cut in Amtrak will save taxpayers $200 million per year (75 cents for every man, woman, and child of us). It will cost 5,500 jobs and send who knows how many extra cars and buses onto the highways, which taxpayers subsidize, directly and indirectly, through federal, state, and local taxes, at the level of $300 billion per year ($1150 for each of us).
Amtrak pays $1 million a year to the state of Vermont for roadbed maintenance, which benefits all the commercial freight that rolls along the line. Trains pay off in other ways, too, as the European and Japanese know. For example:
– An intercity passenger train is three times as energy efficient as commercial air transport and six times as efficient as a one-occupant car.
– Two railroad tracks can carry as many people as 16 highway lanes.
– For every ton of goods shipped by rail rather than truck, nitrogen oxide pollution is reduced by 67 percent, carbon monoxide, smog-causing organics, and particulates by 90 percent, and carbon dioxide by 88 percent.
– Japanese bullet trains have carried over 3 billion passengers without a fatal accident. That much travel on Japanese highways would have killed 2000 people.
– Carrying the same load at the same speed, trains make 25-50 percent less noise than road transport.
– Improving and electrifying the train service between Boston and New York could displace 50 flights per day and eliminate the need for a second Boston airport. The rail improvements would cost $1.3 billion; the airport would cost $5 to $10 billion.
– Our federal government spends $20 on highways for every $1 it spends on rail transport. In Europe the ratio of car subsidy to rail subsidy is not 20 to 1, but 3 to 1.
I’m all for fixing inefficiencies in Amtrak to reduce cost without eliminating service. But we should have more trains, not fewer. If we’re going to cut government spending, let’s do it rationally. There are rivers of waste in Washington. Why start with the dribble that goes to trains?
As other budget suggestions come out of the new Congress, one gets the idea that the agenda is not really budget-cutting at all.
The Public Broadcasting System is scheduled for an axeing. Its government funding at $285 million per year ($1.10 from each of us) is about half of what the Pentagon spends on military bands. It covers only 17% of the operating costs of the 1000 public radio and television stations in the nation. Why worry about this pittance? Why starve the only place in the wasteland of television where a kid can see Shakespeare or an opera, not to mention Sesame Street?
Foreign aid is high on Jesse Helms’s hit list. Much of our foreign aid is indeed misspent, particularly the $5.1 billion ($19.61 from each of us) that goes to Egypt and Israel. But that is not the part of the budget that Helms wants to cut. He is targeting population and environment programs, agriculture programs, and aid to Africa, Russia, and Central Europe.
We now pay $13.7 billion a year ($52 from each of us) to help the rest of the world and $275 billion ($1050 apiece) to fight it. As a fraction of total GNP our aid ranks us 19th among the 20 richest nations, while our military budget is higher than that of the rest of the world put together.
Why cut foreign aid while raising defense, which we all know is laden with pork? Why slash the $75 billion the government spends each year on the poor ($288 from each of us), while ignoring the $100 billion in handouts to the largest corporations ($384 from each of us)? Why go after immunizations for children without saying a word about the $100 billion collected by hospitals and doctors in Medicare scams?
The goal can’t be cutting, when the fattest opportunities for cutting are bypassed. The goal can’t be jobs, when there are jobs in building railroads, in helping the poor, in public broadcasting, in teaching and vaccinating and cleaning up the environment. The only real goal I can see in the new budget agenda is a strong shift from the long-term good of the nation to the short-term good of the rich and powerful.
That’s an agenda driven by fear, greed, and resentment. It shows not a shred of compassion, community, or rationality — in fact its proponents mock those virtues. It’s sad to see, and the saddest part is that ultimately it will hurt every one of us, even those who think they are benefiting.
(The train statistics cited here are taken from an April 1994 Worldwatch publication by Marcia D. Lowe called “Back on Track.”)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995