The Department of Transportation announced half a billion dollars worth of TIGER grants last week. While some of these projects may be worthwhile, others are clearly wasted.
TIGER, which stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, was created by Congress in 2009 to help the nation recover from the Great Recession. Since that recession is supposed to be long over, the Trump administration wants to abolish the program. But members of Congress want to keep it because they see it as a form of pork barrel.
The good news is that none of this year’s TIGER grants are going for streetcars. One is supporting a bus-rapid transit project in Atlanta and a couple more are supporting transit centers in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and Immokalee, Florida. Such infrastructure improvements are wasteful, especially when the money could be spent on repairing existing transit infrastructure (in Atlanta) or operating more frequent service (in the other two cities). The Atlanta BRT project is particularly questionable because it wasn’t on either the city’s or the transit agency’s lists of funding priorities; as one local web site says, the $12.6 million for this project is “a lot of money for a route that no one has heard of before and that never saw any public engagement.”
But the biggest waste of money is probably the $16 million grant to Colfax County, New Mexico, for the route of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. This is the historic route of Santa Fe streamliners such as the Super Chief and El Capitan, but BNSF would like to abandon it in favor of a more southerly route that is less mountainous.
Shifting Amtrak’s train to the southern route would mean missing Albuquerque and instead stopping at Belen, about 35 miles south of Albuquerque. Otherwise, the new route would serve Amarillo (population 200,000), while the towns that would lose service, such as La Junta, Colorado and Lamy, New Mexico, are much smaller.
Completely restoring the existing route will cost something like $200 million. That’s a lot of money for a route that effectively sees just one train a day in each direction. It is especially questionable since the Trump administration wants to eliminate subsidies to Amtrak’s long-distance trains.
Operating the Southwest Chief cost taxpayers $149 per passenger in 2017, and that’s before counting the cost of the equipment or improvements to the tracks that BNSF wants to abandon. The train cars Amtrak uses are older than the supposedly worn-out equipment Amtrak acquired from the railroads when it started in 1971, and replacing them will cost at least $200 million.
So the real question should not be, “Which route should Amtrak take?” but “Why are federal taxpayers subsidizing this train at all?” Instead of asking either of these questions, the DOT is throwing good money after bad by funding improvements to a route that benefits a handful of people.