Senators Coburn and Flake waste our time calling it wasteful.
Republicans in Washington aren't very big fans of Amtrak. Over the past few years, the GOP-led House has conducted a long series of hearings on the passenger rail carrier — some fair (the food service has problems), many not (despite charges of wasteful public spending, Amtrak now pays for most of its operational costs through ticket prices). Many conservative leaders, including then-candidate Romney, have said they want Amtrak privatized or cut off from federal funds.
So even though it took a few weeks, it's no surprise Republicans are starting to come out against the delightful new writer residency program that has the public actually talking about Amtrak in a positive way. The program, which began with a whimsical tweet and recently became official, will send up to 24 writers on overnight journeys to take some inspiration from the American countryside. More than 9,000 people have reportedly applied.
This does not make conservative Republicans happy. Senators Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jeff Flake of Arizona have written a letter to Amtrak chief Joe Boardman expressing "concern" that the carrier would give away free rides when the public subsidized the service to the tune of $1.5 billion in 2013. They write:
We are certain that there is considerable demand for free Amtrak tickets in any number of venues. Unfortunately, given Amtrak's prodigious annual taxpayer subsidies, this plan raises multiple red flags.
Anyone who's run a successful political campaign should immediately see the program for what it is: good, cheap publicity. An Amtrak spokesman described it to the Hill as a "low-risk, high-reward, marketing initiative." Whatever you think of Congress and however you lean politically, it's hard to believe that a program worth no more than $21,600 — that's if all 24 writers received the maximum $900 ticket value — is worth the time it took to craft and send and publicize this letter.
Evidently the Senators felt it was. Interestingly, they raise the matter of Amtrak's long-distance routes in their complaint. These routes, which many of the writers will be taking during their residencies, do indeed lose lots of money (an average of $111 per rider in 2012). But that's largely because Congress mandates that Amtrak serve remote cities and regions as part of its role as a true national carrier — despite the high cost of doing so, and often without sufficient funding.
Coburn and Flake should know this just by looking at their own states. The Heartland Flyer route, which serves Oklahoma, loses more than $20 per passenger. The Southwest Chief and Sunset Limited routes, which serve Arizona, lose far more: roughly $159 and $373 per passenger, respectively. At least Oklahoma gives Amtrak some support through state funding. Arizona demands the local service without offering any local assistance.
Lawmakers could use the writer residency as a springboard to discuss the larger problem of Amtrak's long-distance service. The Senators will say they're looking out for taxpayers, but they also have campaign contributors who compete with Amtrak — U.S. Airways, in the case of Flake; the oil and gas industry, in the case of Coburn.
Sounds like a good train-inspired plot point to us.