October 10, 2021 - TRA Opinion -

Texas District 6 Congressman Jake Ellzey, appearing on the KXAS-TV Sunday morning Lone Star Politics show took a cheap shot at public transportation, which is part of the massive infrastructure bill now before the DC body.

Ellzey said on the program that "we now want to spend $66 billion on Amtrak for a rail system that has never been profitable and frankly people don't use."


Congressman Ellzey needs to update his facts and work from a new playbook.

Let's set the facts straight for the Congressman.

In Texas alone, pre-pandemic in fiscal year 2019, the nation's intercity passenger rail provider saw 363,873 people board or alight at Texas Amtrak stations. Nationwide Amtrak carried over 32 million passengers during the period, breaking a record. People not only use Amtrak in Texas, they use DART, CapMetro Rail, Houston's light rail system, Trinity Railway Express and TEXRail.  That's lots of people in addition to the 363,873 that used Amtrak in Texas.

Now let's look at Ellzey's claim of "a rail system that has never been profitable".

Let's assume that Congressman Ellzey is right and Amtrak should make a profit with running trains. Shouldn't that mean that airports also make a "profit" and be held just as accountable?  What about ports and waterways? Bike paths? Sidewalks? What about Interstate 45 that runs through Ellzey's district? Every one of those modes mentioned is a necessary part of a balanced transportation system. And guess what..... the dirty truth is that every one of those modes is subsidized to some degree by local, state or federal taxes.

What Congressman Ellzey doesn't realize is that the law, Section 9 of the Rail Passengers Service Act "recognizes that Amtrak is not a for-profit corporation.” It serves as a public convenience and necessity to provide transportation.

Jim Mathews, President/CEO of DC-based Rail Passengers Association summed it up quite well when he wrote "there are many things that we spend money on as a country because...well, we want to have a country. Nobody asks if the Air Force turns a profit, nor the Centers for Disease Control. But I’m sure glad we have them, and we’ve agreed as a nation that we will spend our money together on things like this so that we can defend ourselves, whether from enemies or viruses. The reason we have an Amtrak – and the reason we spend money on it – is because for nearly 50 years our elected representatives have continued to agree that passenger rail is a worthwhile investment for the good of the country, economically and socially. If the economy of the U.S. is getting five or six dollars from every dollar spent on passenger rail, then that’s a pretty solid return, for the country and for the taxpayer."

Like Mathews said, the one dollar spent to operate Amtrak returns five and six-fold back to the communities where Amtrak operates when a passenger gets off a train. Here's who benefits:

Local restaurants
Local transportation including taxis, rental cars, Uber
Local hotels
Shopping centers
Tourism spending
Community development and property values near stations
The sales tax collected from all passenger activities

And then there are the indirect benefits:

Highway traffic fatalities avoided
Highway maintenance avoided
Saved travel costs for area residents
Pollution control savings

In addition, Amtrak spent $27,022,637 on goods and services in Texas in FY19 that benefited many businesses throughout the state.

We agree with Mathews' take when he says "Whether it’s the Washington Post or the Heritage Foundation, the argument goes too far when it declares that Amtrak needs to make an operating profit on its own. The law doesn’t require it, and it's bad policy to risk what amounts to billions of dollars of economic prosperity for the sake of a pro forma balance sheet. Don’t focus on profits. Focus on value."





Amtrak operates two National Network trains through Texas:
• The Sunset Limited (tri-weekly New Orleans-Los Angeles via Houston, San Antonio, and
El Paso)*
• The Texas Eagle (daily Chicago-Dallas-San Antonio with tri-weekly through car service
via the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles)
* Sunset Limited service suspended east of New Orleans.
Amtrak operates one State Supported trains through Texas
• The Heartland Flyer (daily Fort Worth-Gainesville-Oklahoma City)
During FY19 Amtrak served the following Texas locations:
City Boardings & Alightings
Alpine 5,242
Austin 29,525
Beaumont 3,651
Cleburne 3,747
Dallas 44,238
Del Rio 1,650
El Paso 14,362
Fort Worth 107,732
Gainesville 6,534
Houston 20,460
Longview 28,836
Marshall 6,694
McGregor 5,365
Mineola 7,438
San Antonio 50,272
San Marcos 7,553
Sanderson 225
Taylor 4,978
Temple 15,371
Total Texas Station Usage: 363,873