Emotion shouldn't override financial common sense as Pennsylvania decides whether it will cover a $5.7 million annual subsidy, now provided by the federal government, to avoid likely suspension of Amtrak service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.
That's what Jake Haulk, a Ph.D. economist and president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, urges after analyzing how that train, The Pennsylvanian, is doing.
Total Pittsburgh station passenger counts are falling, and The Pennsylvanian — with just one morning departure and one evening arrival there daily — “almost certainly” is serving “fewer than 100,000 per year or 270 people per day” and losing riders, which means even higher future subsidies, he writes.
Riding The Pennsylvanian to Harrisburg costs $40 and takes 5 1⁄2 hours with stops. Dr. Haulk notes that Megabus has three daily nonstop Pittsburgh-Harrisburg trips that cost $14 or $16 and take 3 1⁄2 to 4 hours.
Thus, Haulk writes, the state would have to justify taking over the subsidy “on other than economic considerations.” He suggests surveying riders — but cautions that fondness of the rail experience (and count us among those who are fond of it) shouldn't drive the decision.
That $5.7 million could and should be put to better use: “Roads and bridges and unfunded pension liabilities come to mind,” Haulk says.
There's no economic case to be made for the state subsidizing The Pennsylvanian — and state taxpayers will be better served if it doesn't.
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