By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
President Bush plans to cut funding next year for Amtrak, congressional aides said.
The national passenger rail service has had two straight years of record ridership, and the Empire Builder, which passes through Havre twice a day, last year was Amtrak's most popular long-distance train.
The aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they had been informed of Bush's plan by administration officials.
Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said the railroad would not comment.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., issued a statement today saying he would try to keep Amtrak running through Montana.
"I haven't seen the president's budget as it won't be released until Monday. But, it would be outrageous to eliminate funding for Amtrak. Amtrak is vital to our state. It's essential for transportation, jobs, recreation and our economy," Baucus said. "Communities along the Hi-Line depend on Amtrak every day."
Black, in an interview before the plan to cut funding became known, said that even if Amtrak continues to receive more than Bush has proposed in the past but less than the passenger rail service requests - Bush proposed $900 million for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, Amtrak requested $1.8 billion and Congress appropriated $1.2 billion - problems will eventually arise.
"We are embarked upon a capital investment program that cannot be interrupted without serious consequences," Black said Wednesday.
Black said that unless Amtrak starts receiving enough money to continue repairing and maintaining tracks, bridges, stations and engines and cars, service could be disrupted as equipment breaks down.
J.P. Donovan, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said Wednesday morning - before the president's plan became known - that Burns will continue to support Amtrak and try to get its next request fully funded, but gave no guarantees.
"We have to see what the budget looks like first," Donovan said.
Amtrak was nearly sliced into pieces, then nearly shut down, in 2002 when Amtrak requested a $1.2 million budget and President Bush proposed a $521 million budget. In early 2003, Congress appropriated $1.05 billion for the fiscal year that started in October 2002. Amtrak had run on budget extensions until that point.
Since 2002, Amtrak funding has increased significantly, but never as much as the service requested.
The ridership has continued to increase.
In fiscal year 2004, Amtrak ridership jumped by more than 1 million, to a total of more than 25 million passengers, a 4.3 percent increase over the previous year's record number.
The Empire Builder ended the year serving 437,191 passengers, making it the most used Amtrak long-distance train in fiscal 2004. In Montana, 129,044 passengers got on or off of the train.
Donovan said the increasing ridership on the train "certainly doesn't hurt" when Burns argues in support of funding Amtrak. He also touts the economic impact the train has, "every time he can get somebody to stop and listen long enough," Donovan said.
Amtrak brings money to the state aside from the money spent by people it brings here. Amtrak said it employed 57 people in Montana in 2004, paying them more than $3 million in total wages.
The service also bought more than $57,000 worth of goods and services in Montana, including meals it purchases from Boxcars restaurant in Havre that are served on the Empire Builder.
A study commissioned by the state government in 2003 found that the Empire Builder contributes nearly $14 million annually to the economy in Montana.
Black said that while the passenger rail service should be able to operate throughout the next year, unless Amtrak starts receiving funding to repair and maintain equipment including engines, cars, tracks and equipment, equipment will go out of service, disrupting transportation.
"That is why we have requested these funding levels over the past several years," he said. "We cannot use the duct tape and baling wire approach in railroading. It doesn't work."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.