The Republican Senator Supporting Wasteful Amtrak Expansion | National Review

The Republican Senator Supporting Wasteful Amtrak Expansion | National Review

Senator Roger Wicker (R., Miss.,) listens to Governor Gina Raimondo during a hearing on her nomination to be Commerce secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., January 26, 2021. (Tom Williams/Pool via Reuters)

Today I wrote about Amtrak’s plan to use its windfall of federal funding in the bipartisan infrastructure law to add new lines that will hardly see any use. One such line is between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala. A 2015 Amtrak report estimated that twice-daily round-trip service on that route would be used by 38,400 passengers per year, which comes out to 26 passengers per trip.

President Biden’s affinity for Amtrak is well known, and he has appointed DOT officials who share his views. But one of the driving forces behind restoring this Gulf Coast service is Mississippi Republican senator Roger Wicker.

At first, that might seem strange. In the past, Republicans have done quite well politically by opposing wasteful rail projects. Think of Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Rick Scott all opposing federal funding for high-speed rail projects in their states during the Obama administration, for example. Some of that money went to California instead, which promptly wasted it on an over-budget and behind-schedule high-speed train that still isn’t close to being operational.

Wicker, on the other hand, has been calling for restoration of the Gulf Coast Amtrak service for years. A 2016 statement from his office called the service “essential to the national passenger rail network.” In 2019, he trumpeted a $33 million award from the Federal Railroad Administration to fund the project. And on February 15, he told the Surface Transportation Board, “For the Mississippians who lost a transportation option along with so much else to Hurricane Katrina, this case is not an abstract policy question. It’s about continuing and completing the recovery.”

Again, that’s for a service that, according to a ridership estimate from Amtrak, would carry 26 passengers per trip on average.

If there’s one congressional principle that trumps ideology, it’s bringing home the bacon, and Wicker comes from a long tradition of Mississippi politicians who are experts at funneling federal dollars back to their state. Wicker supported Congress’s 2011 ban on earmarks, but when the practice was still around, he was one of its top users. After then-Representative Wicker got a $6 million earmark in 2007 for a defense firm that contributed to his campaign, Robert Novak called him “a poster child for an earmark moratorium.” According to Open Secrets, Wicker got more earmarks than any other senator for fiscal year 2008 and was third-most for fiscal year 2010.

Just because earmarks aren’t allowed anymore doesn’t mean members of Congress don’t have ways to steer federal money to their constituents. Wicker was one of the 19 Republican senators who voted for the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, which is built around grant-based programs through which states apply for federal dollars. The Gulf Coast rail project that Amtrak envisions would send plenty of those federal dollars to Mississippi. The service would run across the entire southern part of the state, much more than each of the relatively short portions in Alabama and Louisiana. Amtrak says $44.9 million of the $57.7 million in federal money for infrastructure improvements, or 78 percent of the total, would be spent in Mississippi. It also cites a University of Southern Mississippi estimate that claims Mississippi will see $486 million in economic impact from tourism spending as a result of the project, more than Alabama and Louisiana.

In short, Mississippi benefits more than Alabama and Louisiana from the federal funding in this proposal, which is probably one of the reasons that Wicker supports it. But he should be careful. Ports in low-regulation, low-tax states (such as Mississippi) have a major opportunity to capitalize on California’s failures to run its major ports efficiently. The Port of Mobile has expanded and plans to continue doing so, with great benefit to Alabama’s economy and to the country’s economy as a whole. Other ports across the Southeast are making similar investments. Mississippi would be wise to focus its attention and money on expanding its port capacity instead of blowing it on passenger trains that hardly anyone will ride.

Dominic Pino is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at National Review Institute.

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.