'More traffic to our freeways': Concerns over long distance Amtrak cuts in Trump's budget

KATU file image

Rail passenger advocates are predicting more traffic on our freeways and fewer travel options if President Donald Trump's proposed budget becomes a reality.

Amtrak says the plan would eliminate funding for its long distance rail service in the U.S., which would impact short distance passengers as well, including those traveling between Portland and Seattle.

Supporters of the cuts say they wouldn't necessarily eliminate service and that Amtrak customers should pay all of the costs for rail operations.

"Eliminates all long distance travel"

"I have a little bit more time than money right now," Martin Johnson told KATU at Amtrak's Union Station in Northwest Portland.

He took an airplane to Portland from California over the weekend to respond to a family emergency. On Monday, he said he was heading home to the Bay Area and wanted to save money.

"I have to get back," Johnson said, "and I can't spend $300 or $400 on an airline ticket."

The price for long distance train travel to Emeryville, California, where he's heading?

"Today going back, it's about $95," Johnson said. "It would be $76 if I had got the ticket earlier one-way."

But under President Trump's proposed federal budget, Dan McFarling said a long distance Amtrak trip like that is not possible.

"What the Trump administration has proposed basically eliminates all long distance travel," said Johnson, the director of the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates. "That would eliminate the train that travels between Seattle and Los Angeles through Portland, the Coast Starlight. It also would eliminate the Empire Builder, which is the train that travels between Portland and Chicago."

Service between Seattle and Portland is not considered long distance, but the elimination of the Coast Starlight would limit options for train travel between the two cities to short distance services.

In fact, Amtrak and railroad advocates say long distance trains provide the only Amtrak service in 23 states.

McFarling said cuts would impact more than just rail customers.

"It would add more traffic to our freeways," McFarling said. "Rail is one of the most efficient ways to relieve congestion on our roads."

Amtrak said a record number of passengers, 31.3 million, rode with them last year. An Amtrak spokesperson sent KATU a statement saying, in part:

"Amtrak is very focused on running efficiently - we covered 94 percent of our total network operating costs through ticket sales and other revenues in FY16 but these services all require federal investment."

"Almost every state in the nation would lose some rail service if we lost our long distance service," McFarling said.

Regarding the possible Amtrak cuts, John Charles, president and CEO of the Cascade Policy Institute, a fiscally conservative think tank, sent KATU a statement saying, in part:

"Probably the biggest effect in Oregon would be to kill off the wasteful light rail construction program in Portland and the EmEx 'Bus Rapid Transit' in Eugene. Both are heavily subsidized by the FTA 'New Starts' program. Taxpayers would be well-served by euthanizing New Starts.

Taking away (or reducing) subsidies to Amtrak would not necessarily eliminate service; it just means that passengers would have to pay 100% of operating costs, or close to it. And they should. If they are not willing, private-for-profit intercity bus service is already available as an alternative in most markets.

There is nothing sacred or mysterious about passenger rail. If customers value the service, they should pay for all costs. If they don’t, then clearly the service is not socially useful.

Train advocates are so blinded by their cult-like zeal that they literally believe there is no such thing as spending too much of someone else’s money to operate the trains."

Statement from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's office:

“The Amtrak cuts proposed by Trump in his budget would make our country’s transportation challenges all the more difficult to solve. I oppose this reckless proposal that redirects scarce resources from infrastructure such as rail travel so the president can shovel money to defense contractors and tax cuts for the wealthy, which both shortchange working families and the environment.”

Statement from U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer:

“The hypocrisy should be astounding, but it’s what we’ve come to expect. Trump repeatedly called for upgrading our aging rail system, which would improve regional connectivity, cut commute times, and relieve freight bottlenecks—all contributing to economic growth. His budget proposal would do just the opposite, and would yank needed federal support from rural and small communities that rely on it most. Like many of his proposals, eliminating long distance Amtrak service would break yet another promise and hurt his staunchest supporters."

Amtrak Budget Statement by Amtrak President & CEO Wick Moorman (provided by Vernaé Graham, Amtrak spokesperson):

"The budget proposal to eliminate funding for Amtrak’s long distance service could impact many of the 500 communities we serve. Amtrak operates 15 long-distance trains across the nation and these routes offer the only Amtrak service in 23 of the 46 states we serve. These trains connect our major regions, provide vital transportation to residents in rural communities and generate connecting passengers and revenue for our Northeast Corridor and State-Supported services. Amtrak is very focused on running efficiently - we covered 94 percent of our total network operating costs through ticket sales and other revenues in FY16 – but these services all require Federal investment.

As the budget process progresses, we look forward to working with President Trump, Secretary Chao, and Congress to ensure they understand the value of Amtrak’s long distance trains and what these proposed cuts would mean to this important part of the nation’s transportation system."



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