By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The decision by the House Appropriations Committee to fund only $900 million for Amtrak has found opposition in Congress. A letter signed by 219 U.S. representatives, one more than the majority of 218, supporting the full $1.8 billion request has been sent to all members of the House.
Montana's U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns has joined three other Republican senators, bill author Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Trent Lott of Mississippi and Olympia Snowe of Maine, in sponsoring a bill that would provide Amtrak with $60 billion over six years.
"In rural areas like we have in Montana, transportation options can be few and far between," Burns said in a press release Wednesday. "Amtrak offers us options that are not there otherwise, and these options are extremely important to maintain. The goal here is to give Amtrak the resources to be self-sufficient and this reauthorization will provide those tools."
Gov. Judy Martz met with Amtrak government affairs director Ray Lang Thursday in Whitefish. Lang is traveling from Minot, N.D., to Spokane, Wash., to talk to public officials and community leaders in every community the Empire Builder serves between the two cities.
Martz, chair of the Western Governors' Association, said in a press release that she is directing the association to draft a resolution supporting Amtrak.
"The Empire Builder is very important to Montana and the Hi-Line. It not only provides good jobs, but it also brings visitors to Montana, provides access to medical service for our rural residents, and gives people another travel option when storms close our highways," Martz said in the release.
Lang said at a meeting in Havre Tuesday that Amtrak wants to get the local communities involved in the congressional debates on Amtrak from start to finish. Local officials and Chamber of Commerce representatives will be notified when key debates and votes on the Amtrak budget are about to take place, so they can contact their senators and representatives.
Amtrak representatives will travel other long-distance routes later this summer to establish contacts with communities on those routes, Amtrak spokeswoman Karina VanVeen said Wednesday.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said Rehberg supports fully funding Amtrak's request and keeping it in its current form and funding structure. Rehberg does not support the Bush administration's proposal, said Erik Iverson, Rehberg's chief of staff.
"That plan is problematic for states like Montana," he said.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., announced in a press release that he sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta Wednesday saying Baucus will fight the changes proposed by the Bush administration, and will work to boost funding for the service.
"Abandoning the federal government's responsibility to support Amtrak will mean certain doom for passenger rail service in Montana, as well as having devastating economic effects on the Montana communities Amtrak serves. I cannot and will not stand idly by and let that happen," Baucus wrote in his letter.
Barrett Kaiser, Baucus' communication director, said today that the senator plans to use the findings of the R.L. Banks study when he debates Amtrak's funding on the floor of the Senate.
"It shows how important Amtrak is to our state's economy and to jobs in Montana," Kaiser said.
Steyaert said the R.L. Banks study - the first of its kind, according to Bob Banks, the company's president - could be useful to many people involved in the Amtrak debate.
"It should probably be looked at by other states facing the same problem," Steyaert said.
The R.L. Banks report summarized several benefits Amtrak brings to Montana.
"It brings to the state tourists and others who purchase goods and services, " the report said. "Amtrak spends money in Montana on salaries, fuel, water and food. Importantly, the intercity passenger train constitutes a 'lifeline' across rural northern Montana, providing essential transportation to many Montanans and important express package shipping to individuals and commercial enterprises. (Other benefits include) reduced cost of transportation, reduced cost of highway maintenance, improved safety, and reduced requirements for, and expenditures on, alternative transportation."
The report cites several specific impacts losing the Empire Buildier would have on Montana. An estimated $1.6 million would be lost in spending by people from out of Montana who ride the route, the report said.
Montana would lose between $3.7 million and $4.1 million in spending by Amtrak, and would lose at least $7.6 million in transportation benefits, such as travel cost savings, lower highway maintenance expenses, fewer accidents and less pollution.
The loss in revenue would also reduce benefits created by the re-spending of the money coming from Amtrak and its passengers, the report said.
Other factors, like the economic impact of Amtrak's freight service, could not be quantified in the time allowed to conduct the study, the report said.
Stayaert said the impact of the freight service is moot anyway, since Gunn has ordered the service cancelled because it loses too much money for Amtrak.
The report said other benefits the Empire Builder provides are intangible. R.L. Banks received 94 e-mails about the benefits Amtrak provides, including one from Nottingham, England. Only one supported cutting the service.
"The many responses received in this study show that the Empire Builder is a way of life in these isolated rural communities. The most important impact of cancelling the Empire Builder would be disruption of this way of life," the report said.
For many Montanans, Amtrak is the only convenient public transportation available, the report said. Some of the people who ride Amtrak would have to drive hundreds of miles to reach services or alternative public transportation, it said.
The service is especially useful to many of the residents of the four Montana Indian reservations on or near the Empire Builder's route, the report said. Henri Headdress, transportation planner for the Fort Peck Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, is quoted in an appendix to the report.
The Empire Builder is the most convenient transportation available to many residents of the reservation, Headdress said. With high unemployment, lack of personal vehicles and no bus service at the reservation, loss of the rail service would "have a negative affect on all the people on the reservation and those in the surrounding area," Headdress wrote.
E-mails listed in an appendix to the report list several other advantages, including the pleasure and ease of traveling by train and seeing the countryside as it passes through, the chance to meet and visit with a variety of people while on the train and the fact that the train usually runs during times highways and airports are shut down by inclement weather.
On the Net: Report on the economic benefits of the Empire Builder: www.mdt.state.mt.us/planning/empire_builder.pdf
In the midst of a new debate about how Amtrak should be funded, a study released in July estimates the economic and social impacts that losing the passenger rail service would have on Montana.
Tom Steyaert, planner for the Montana Department of Transportation, said this morning that the report gives state leaders and decision makers the opportunity to see what the loss of the Empire Builder would mean., The train runs through Montana on its route between Chicago and Seattle and Portland, Ore.
"It's just another blow to the economy," Steyaert said.
The study, conducted by R.L. Banks and Associates Inc. of Washington, D.C., in May and June, concluded that losing the service would, conservatively, cost nearly $14 million in direct spending in the state, income for Montanans, transportation benefits and tax revenues.
The study also found that loss of the train would result in losses that are not quantifiable - the loss of a way of life in rural America.
The study was commissioned by MDT, the Montana Department of Commerce and the Montana Department of Agriculture.
Amtrak nearly shut down last year when the passenger rail service almost ran out of money in June. Federal loan guarantees and a special appropriation by Congress kept the service running until its new budget - $150 million short of the $1.2 billion requested by Amtrak - was approved earlier this year.
Amtrak president David Gunn has requested $1.8 billion a year for the next five years for Amtrak, including repairing the service's engines and cars, as well as tracks, bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure.
The U.S. House has proposed half that amount for this year, and President Bush has announced a six-year plan that includes turning the operations of the 16 long-distance train routes over to the states they run through.