Worth the Cost?
Throughout U.S. history, the public sector has been involved actively in shaping the development and operation of the transportation system, although private decisions also have played a major role. Moreover, governmental involvement in the transportation field is not limited to the United States; governments around the world are active participants in their transportation systems.
Many aspects of public involvement in transportation are relatively noncontroversial. Public funding for road and highway programs is widely accepted at the national, state, and local levels, although disagreements arise from time to time over the distribution of funds, contract awards, and location of new routes. Public ownership of major airports is widely accepted in principle, as is public involvement in the air traffic control system. Governmental programs to improve harbors and waterways generate occasional criticism but rarely face serious attack.
A major exception, although not the only one, to the consensual nature of transportation programs is the Amtrak system, which has been embroiled in controversy for much of its existence. A major element of the controversy regarding Amtrak centers on the question of whether it produces benefits that are sufficient to justify its costs. Policy and performance assessment of Amtrak involves numerous complexities, as we have seen, but certain tentative conclusions have been possible. Beyond assessments based on Amtrak's own record, however, an evaluation might also place that record in the context of broader national issues.
One aspect of the Amtrak controversy involves its potential contribution to U.S. energy independence. The U.S. transportation system is powered almost entirely by oil. It accounts for approximately two-thirds of all U.S.