By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A Washington, D.C., consultant will soon present to state officials the results of a study about the impacts Amtrak has on Montana.
The state wants to have the information in hand in case Congress either eliminates the twice-daily Empire Builder or asks the state to help pay for passenger train service.
"Basically, we're planning ahead," Tom Steyeart of the Montana Department of Transportation said Monday.
An informal survey conducted by MDT last year found that Amtrak contributes at least $6.5 million to the state economy, Steyeart said.
MDT, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Agriculture commissioned R.L. Banks and Associates to do an in-depth analysis.
Andy Poole, administrator of the Business Resources Division of the Department of Commerce, said there is a possibility Congress will not fully fund Amtrak, and might require the states on its routes to pick up part of the tab. The state needs to know the effects of losing the service, he said.
"It's always important to the state that we have varied and efficient transportation," he said. "We're interested in having as much information as we can so the governor and the congressional delegation make sure bad things don't happen to us."
Boxcars restaurant and casino in Havre supplies food to both the eastbound and westbound Empire Builder. Craig Anderson, who owns the business with his wife, Sandy, said he provides 200 to 260 meals a day to the trains.
"It's a real good business for us," he said.
Anderson said eight or nine of his 23 employees would probably lose their jobs if the train stopped running.
Bob Banks, chief executive officer of R.L. Banks and Associates, said the study will be completed by the end of the month.
"We're coming up with new data that's never been publicized before," he added.
Ken Withers, who has been conducting the study, has taken comments from the mayors of the Montana communities on the Empire Builder's route, Banks said. He also has taken comments from residents of Indian reservations along the route, Banks said. Many Native Americans use the rail service, he said.
People who use Amtrak are invited to send comments to Withers, Banks said. The deadline for comments is Friday.
The comments will be added to the report in an appendix, Banks said.
The former president of Amtrak announced in February 2002 that unless it received the full $1.2 billion it requested for its budget, it would start eliminating some long-distance passenger service. He later resigned and was replaced by David Gunn, who said the company would not eliminate part of its service. If it ran out of money, he said, it would shut down entirely.
Closure of Amtrak was averted last June when the federal government guaranteed loans and appropriated extra money to keep the passenger rail service solvent.
Steyeart said one reason the departments commissioned the study was so the state could see what it would lose if the Empire Builder stopped running. If Montana would have to allocate state money to pay for the train, it would need to know what the benefit is, he said.
The study could also be used to help convince Congress that the service should be continued, and it could be used by people interested in getting new routes started, such as across the southern part of the state, Steyeart said.
"This information can be used by all kinds of people in all kinds of situations," he said.
Anderson said the only down side is, the federal government may be more likely to require Montana to help pay for the train service if it produces a significant economic benefit for the state.
Comments can be sent to Withers by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, by fax to (202) 296-3700, or by mail to P.K. Withers, c/o R.L. Banks and Associates Inc., Room 1010, 1717 K Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20036.