I received an email from Amtrak yesterday introducing me to an ‘advocacy organization’ that was ‘involved in launching Amtrak’ and telling me that if I paid to become a member of this advocacy organization I could have a discount on future train travel. It struck me as problematic that an entity 100% owned by the government would give discounts to people paying to support lobbying for more subsidies of its product. And ask whether others felt the same way.
The comments mostly strayed from that topic, turning into a good-versus-bad of Amtrak or subsidies generally, a worthwhile topic but one I had hoped would be for another day. I took the train up to New York on Friday. The train was on time. The on-board internet was virtually non-existent. It was fine. Though of course the Northeast Corridor routes aren’t where the bulk of the subsidies go, it’s the lightly traveled routes across the country, zig zagging through Congressional districts. Train travel may make sense for short-haul travel between large population centers, some may enjoy the nostalgia of a sleeper car across country. None of this was really the subject of the post.
And the National Association of Railroad Passengers has responded as well. Most of their defenses are along the lines of arguments teased out in the comments on this blog.
The federal government has spent more than $34 billion in general revenue taxpayer dollars (that is, tax dollars from sources other than user-fees, like the gas tax) on highways since 2008 alone. The surface transportation reauthorization bill currently being debated in Congress includes $12 billion more in general funds for highways. And yet, as evidenced by this story, the point of view that says passenger rail is the only mode of transportation that receives federal investment persists.
The federal government spends money on lots of things, so why attack spending on rail? Except that no one was, it was just a question of the appropriateness of Amtrak giving discounts to members of a group arguing for more Amtrak subsidies.
NARP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. This means that, by law, the vast majority of our expenditures (and thus staff time) is spent on activities other than lobbying. Also, we cannot contribute to politicians, take part in elections, or do anything that constitutes electioneering. Indeed, the prohibition against electioneering has been in our by-laws since our founding in 1967, a quarter century before we became a 501(c)(3).
Nowhere in my post is there any mention of campaigning in elections, and I didn’t see any such reference in the posts linking to this blog, either. So that’s a non sequitur. As for lobbying, Amtrak’s email describes NARP as an advocacy organization. NARP’s website calls themselves an advocacy organization. One commenter on the original post who describes himself as “a long term proud member and former Director of NARP” concedes “One particular educational battle we fight is over government subsidies for transportation.”
The bloggers could’ve found out that NARP spends most of its time educating the American public on the benefits of train travel. About how energy efficient train travel is—20% more energy efficient per passenger mile than airlines, and 27% more energy efficient per passenger mile than cars (Oak Ridge National Laboratory). How the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that every $1 billion invested in rail directly creates 20,000 jobs. How Amtrak trains serve rural communities that have no other public transportation
Yes, if only I had spoken to them I would have learned how wonderful trains are!
Finally, I would’ve directed them to the section of Amtrak’s website that shows the full discount list, which includes essentially the same discount for AAA members and for active-duty military personnel and their spouses and dependents.
Amtrak gives discounts to several organizations (that one must pay to be a member of). AAA members get discounts on train travel, they get discounts on car rentals, they get discounts on hotels. I’m never actually asked for my AAA card but I am a AAA member for the discounts.
But in this case there are discounts which are pro- a specific viewpoint and in particular, pro-subsidies for Amtrak. And that’s what seemed problematic — Amtrak going out to its customers offering a better deal than offered to the general public if they join a group which supports Amtrak subsidies (although not a better deal than offered to anyone). Another variant of the argument made in the comments is that the discount isn’t very good. Though it’s certainly being promoted by Amtrak as desirable.
The NARP response hardly warrants a big “Myth vs Fact” graphic…
But mostly I was hoping that a discussion of discounts for members of a pro-subsidy group given by a government-owned entity would be the subject of the original modest discussion. It seems like that was a tough conversation to have.