The wreckage from last week’s Amtrak derailment had yet to cool and Democrats were already seizing on the political opportunities presented by a government program gone horribly awry. The Amtrak crash, they wasted no time in saying, was the fault of cold, heartless Republicans who don’t care about the poor, or minorities, puppies, the future of Amtrak’s signature microwave pizza monopoly, or the legions of staffers, lobbyists, journalists and officials who use the New York to DC Amtrak route to attend routine cocktail parties without having to commit to moving out of the cushy NYC suburbs.
Amtrak, it was quickly pointed out, is a disatrous, bureaucratic bungle, whose sloppy administration and borderline incompetent financial oversight make the Post Office look well run. And while the government has spent the better part of the last half century pumping billions into its coffers, the rail system not only routinely fails to make ends meet, but can barely keep track of what it’s supposed to do and why.
A year 2000 assessment of Amtrak’s use of taxpayer relief funds makes it clear that Amtrak wasn’t, at the time, entirely sure it was actually a public transportation system and not a retirement hobby for people who like trains. Despite spending over $800 million in “capital improvement projects,” Amtrak could not be sure it used any of the money for the right projects, couldn’t be entirely certain that it used it for projects that were completed, and you get the sense that the GAO wrote the report in the spaces between body-wracking sobs of utter frustration.
In 2013, Amtrak did its own audit with Ernst and Young, which was, like the GAO report, unintentionally hilarious in its content. Thanks to the brilliant minds overseeing the rail project that’s supposed to move Americans from city to city in a cheap and efficient manner, we can now be sure that as recently as two years ago, Amtrak itself recognized a host of material weaknesses in its own financial management, and could not, it appears from the report, figure out how much money it had, how much money it owed, where its money went or why it had money in the first place.
It’s no surprise, then, that in 2010, when asked what sort of federal regulation and management programs he would cut because their cost outweighed their value, senior Obama Advisor Cass Sunstein, then head of the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, said that the only thing came to mind was the $1.2 billion rail improvement system that included the Positive Train Control system – the system that could have prevented last week’s crash but wasn’t engaged.
When a Republican lawmaker in 2011 asked an Obama administration Office of Management and Budget official to name regulations where costs were not justified by benefits, the official had a ready answer.
“There is only one big one that comes to mind,” said Cass Sunstein, then administrator of the White House OMB’s Office of Information & Regulatory Affairs. “It is called Positive Train Control.”
Even though the regulations for the $13.2 billion rail-safety system were mandated by Congress, “monetizable benefits are lower than the monetizable costs,” Sunstein told then Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., at a House Energy & Commerce subcommittee hearing. “There aren’t a lot like that.”
So, if I’m reading this right – and I believe that I am – it seems that the Administration itself, through it’s management and budget office, recognized that even ostensibly important improvements to Amtrak weren’t necessarily worth the money – or, for that matter, worth giving Amtrak the money to do them. In fact, the whole House committee he was testifying in front of was adamant that the PTC wasn’t worth the cost, not surprising for, say, Republicans, who have opposed spending more money on Amtrak without the organization improving its financial oversight, but surprising as far as Democrats are concerned. The Administration has taken every available opportunity to institute massive regulatory programs across the board.
But when faced with funding Amtrak to the tune of $1.2 billion? It did what everyone else does: acknowledged that Amtrak is a collosal mess.
I suppose that, if you admit that one massive, Federal bureaucracy isn’t worth the time or money, you have to admit that most aren’t. But I do wonder if the Democrats who tsk-tsk‘ed all last week over Amtrak’s funding shortfalls will be as quick to turn their index fingers on the administration.
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