How you’re paying plenty for better rail service you’re not getting

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(PIX11) -- The Philadelphia train derailment is a glaring reminder that public investment in rail travel is very low, despite the fact that people in our region are paying significant tax dollars that could be applied to improving different modes of rail travel.

Instead, though, the funding is going to other projects, some worthy of the spending, perhaps, and others not.  But a noticeable percentage of our region's tax dollars are not benefiting our region.

The United States' investment in the railway system, much like the federal government's investment in all types of infrastructure, has been on a steady decline since the mid-1950's.

That's a glaring contrast to the decades that preceded that.  In fact, the U.S. used to be the premiere nation for railway engineering.  The 1934 American made Zephyr train broke the rail speed record, only to have its technology used in the development of the Shinkansen, the Japanese train that has longest held the record for fastest in the world.  It's also known as the Bullet train.

Despite its decline, U.S.spending on transportation is still noteworthy -- $279 billion each year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.  The lion's share of that money, $165 billion, goes to highway projects.

Rail gets just a penny of each federal transportation dollar, or $3 billion per year.

By comparison on a worldwide scale, for every $100 of government spending, China spends 1.25 on railways.  On average in Europe, rail expenditures are 37 cents.   While that may, to some, sound like a low amount, in the U.S., only two cents of every $100 of government spending goes toward rail projects.

Facts like that prompted a heated statement from a New York congressman in Washington on Wednesday.

"The budgets that this majority continues to present ," said Steve Israel, a Long Island Democrat, "consistently subsidize more and more special interests. What we should have been doing is subsidizing the safety of those passengers on that Amtrak train yesterday."

Rep. Israel, spoke to fellow members of the House Appropriations Committee, which voted to cut more than a quarter billion dollars from Amtrak, just a half day after the fatal train derailment in Philadelphia.

The New York members of the committee, including Congressman Israel and Rep. Nita Lowey, also a Democrat, condemned the vote.

It underscores another issue, that's very closely related to money.

"I think the problem is more political," said Fordham University School of Business professor Haim Mozes.  He was part of a WalletHub survey that compared the taxes people pay to the benefits they receive.  Amtrak and other rail projects, including commuter rail and subways, are among the benefits, but the 10 states that receive the most federal money benefits while paying the least in taxes, have virtually no rail projects for commuters.

Some cases, like Mississippi," said Prof. Mozes, "there's such a high poverty level that they're going to get a disproportionate amount of spending because there's so much spending that's poverty based.  You have Medicaid, you have the housing programs, you have the WIC programs, so they're going to be disproportionate beneficiaries."

But look at the 10 states that pay the most but benefit the least from the federal tax system, and on the list are   three states along the Northeast Corridor Amtrak route: New York, New Jersey and Delaware.  In fact, for each dollar New Yorkers and New Jerseyans put into the federal tax system, the return on the payment is less than a dollar.  That means money that's not going toward helping rail-based transit.

"There's no company that stands to make a lot of money by expanding rail service, at least no New York, New Jersey or Connecticut company," said Mozes.

"If you were to have a rail car manufacturer in New Jersey," the professor said, "we'd have really high speed rail pretty quickly."