You have to give House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., kudos for creativity. A longtime foe of Amtrak, Mica attacked on the caloric front as Congress was adjourning for its August recess. He accused Amtrak of losing $833 million in a food service that is subsidized by taxpayers. To drive home his point, he publicly bought (and ate) a $1 hamburger and $1 soda at a Washington D.C. McDonald's. Why, he queried, does a similar meal cost $9.50 on Amtrak? And why, he pressed further, is Amtrak still losing money on the transaction? The cost to the rail service, apparently, is $16.50.
Amtrak President Joseph Boardman acknowledged in a hearing before Mica's committee that Amtrak's food service only recovered 59 percent of its cost last year. (Amtrak's goal is to recoup 70 percent of the costs by 2015.) But Boardman also pointed out that food and beverage services only accounted for 8 percent of Amtrak's total expenses for the year, and more than half was covered by the revenues from sales. "This is a very small portion of a very large business," he said.
It's hard to see where Mica is going with this line of argument, except to annoy Amtrak partisans. He isn't asking Amtrak to get rid of its food service, which Boardman said would cost more than it would save. For Mica, it is part of a larger beef, so to speak. He has pressed to privatize the federally subsidized rail service for years, but his attempts thus far have been unsuccessful. Elected officials representing the Northeast Corridor tend to balk at the suggestion, worrying that the private sector won't pony up the money and rail service will suffer. Still, whether you love Amtrak or hate Amtrak, the rail service still operates at a loss.
Where is this Amtrak conversation going? Has Mica introduced any new arguments with his burger stunt? Is there any chance Amtrak's subsidized status will actually change in the next year? Who is paying attention to this dispute, and are they persuadable? Does it make sense to single out the food service for criticism?