Havre Daily News
Gov. Brian Schweitzer's whistle-stop tour brought out 300 people Wednesday from Havre, the Hi-Line, the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, and as far away as Medicine Hat, Texas, Chicago and Washington, D.C., to protest the Bush administration's proposal to eliminate funding for Amtrak.
Speakers - who included Schweitzer, representatives of Montana's congressional delegation, legislators, Amtrak officials, passenger rail supporters, local government and tribal officials, and residents - protested the plan at a town meeting Wednesday at the Eagles Club. The group moved to the Havre depot and met additional dignitaries, including U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger - on the arriving Empire Builder for a rally there.
Many denounced the administration's plan, which would require states like Montana to share the expense of maintaining passenger rail infrastructure and service, and some spoke out against statements made by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta at a press conference Tuesday.
A number of those in attendance also called for the expansion of Amtrak service across the country.
Scores of supporters cheered and waved signs as they met the westbound Empire Builder, the train that has served Havre and the Hi-Line for almost 76 years.
Schweitzer, after receiving a standing ovation in the town of his birth, railed against statements Mineta made Tuesday and in the past about the train and its service in Montana.
Mineta said states that want Amtrak to make stops within their borders should have to pay. He suggested Montana might be better served if the route were moved to the state's southern tier.
Schweitzer noted that Mineta held the press conference the day before the tour. Members of the Bush administration are starting to hear the noise Montanans are making, he said.
"I don't think this is a plan, I think this is a budget to try to zero out Amtrak," the Democratic governor said. "If (Mineta) were to look at a map of the United States, if he would look at places like North Dakota, Montana and Idaho, those places all voted for his boss. And this is the thank you that we get from this administration?
"We're here to say to this administration that Amtrak has worked," he added. "It will work. It's a critical part of our transportation system, and how dare you suggest that we would zero Amtrak out."
Baucus arrived in Havre from the tour's first stop in Glasgow. He too spoke in support of Amtrak and denounced the Bush administration's proposal.
"It is wrong to privatize Amtrak," the Montana Democrat said. "... It is wrong to privatize basic American values and services. We have the interstate highway system to bind our country together," and air travel receives federal help, he said. "We also need to have our passenger rail system to serve the needs of Americans. We will not let Amtrak stop its service in the great state of Montana."
Baucus called the proposal to pay for rail service or lose it a "nutty idea."
Representatives of Republi-can Sen. Conrad Burns and Rep. Denny Rehberg spoke in support of the Empire Builder at the town hall meeting.
"Amtrak and, specifically, the Empire Builder, is a national rail service and should be handled from that perspective," Burns said in a statement read by aide Sarah Converse. "I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress, state officials and the administration to find a long-term solution to the Amtrak problem. The bottom line is, I want to actually read the proposal myself, but I'm incredibly skeptical about placing that burden on the states. ... It's not feasible for the economy of Montana."
Burns did not participate in the whistle-stop tour but recently rode the Empire Builder. Rehberg, also a Republican, was to meet up with the tour today in Whitefish.
Rehberg's chief of staff, Eric Iverson, said the lack of budget funding for Amtrak is "a suggestion at this point."
"Sometimes when the chief executive sends down a plan, or sends down a budget, the Congress simply ignores it," he said. "And that's what happened the past few years with the president's Amtrak plan. ... Denny's pretty confident that we've got the votes to essentially ignore the president again this year. ... Denny is going to fight this plan from the administration tooth and nail."
'Sick and tired'
Local government officials and representatives also spoke out against the Bush proposal.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice and Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette both said they have fond memories of the Empire Builder and noted they have had to battle to keep the train year after year.
Rice, a Republican, said the president is making a error on this issue.
"With the situation we're in right now, he's making a very serious mistake," Rice said. "I think if he had any political savvy at all, he'd realize that you've got to listen to the people. I hope he does."
Rice, who has said losing the Empire Builder would be like "losing a limb," reiterated how important the train is to the community.
"This has become a very serious issue for us here in Havre," he said.
"We don't have a bus service here, and we're very fortunate to have a taxi service. If you want to get somewhere out of Havre and you don't have a car, and we don't have Amtrak, you're not going anywhere unless you have a very good friend," Rice added, prompting loud applause. "We're fortunate to have Amtrak. It's time to take a stand on this."
Bessette said the federal government needs to realize it's supposed to support rural America instead of taking things like Amtrak away.
"In local government, we don't say no," she said. "We don't cut services. We provide services. I think Secretary Mineta has to go to his boss and say, 'We have to provide this service. We're providing this service to people who need this service, who are very, very rural - who are sick and tired of fight ing for this every year.'"
Democratic state Rep. and Rocky Boy tribal council member Jonathan Windy Boy said residents need to stand together in support of rail passenger service.
"I think that the bottom line here, the real story, is that we have to cut domestic costs to pay for a war that we've all paid for," Windy Boy said. "Some of my people have lost their lives. Some of your families have lost their lives. Don't you think that we have paid enough?
"We are known as one of the last frontier states in the union, and it's true because we're one of the last few good places to live in this country," Windy Boy added. "We have our differences around here, but this is an issue that we need to stand together on. Let's show this administration that we are going to fight on this issue."
Senate President Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, encouraged Hi-Liners to continue that fight.
"I think the president misreads the can-do attitude of the people of Montana, particularly those along the northern tier," Tester said. "Keep the pressure on, and you can keep Amtrak."
State Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, said Amtrak is essential to the region.
"This is a statewide enterprise, a benefit for the Hi-Line," he said.
National Association of Rail Passengers president George Chilson said the people who rely on rail travel need to go on the offensive.
"We need to reframe the debate," Chilson said. "So far, we're talking about a repeat of years past, about saving Amtrak. It's time to stop talking about what we've got. It's time to start talking about expanding passenger rail service."
Chilson called for adding a second train in each direction for the Empire Builder and reopening the southern Montana route, which was closed in the 1970s, to passenger trains.
"It's time for us to push back," Chilson said. "Mobility is too important to the American people, our economic development and our quality of life for it to be anything other than a public responsibility."
Those who want to cut passenger service know "the cost of everything and the value of nothing," he said.
Mineta is attempting to divide the country by region, or by creating conflict between Americans in urban and rural areas, Chilson said.
"They're trying to tell us that trains make sense, but only in some areas, like the Northeast," Chilson said. "We have got to stand up for a national system that works. My argument is that trains make sense everywhere people use them."
Through April 30, 127,000 people got on or off the train in Montana in the last 12 months, Chilson said. More than 14,000 of those boarded or deboarded in Havre, and they most often went to places like Whitefish, Chicago, St. Paul, Spokane, Wash., Portland, Ore., and Seattle, he said.
The Empire Builder, which serves a population of 20 million, carried 456,000 passengers over the last year, Chilson said.
"No one can argue this service isn't used," he said.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the train is important to all who use it, whether they live in Seattle or Chicago, or places like Havre, Glasgow and Shelby.
"There are people who want to disenfranchise parts of this country ... simply because not enough people live there," Magliari said. "Those people just don't get it. This train is important."
He said Hi-Liners should fight to keep the Empire Builder alive, because passenger trains are not easy to resurrect. Amtrak was forced to cut the Pioneer line, which ran from Portland, Ore., to Seattle to Boise, Idaho, and on to Denver. After the train was cut, the freight railroad pulled up the boarding platforms, took out switches and changed the curves, all of which made it very expensive to bring it back.
"Once you lose your train, it is nigh on impossible to get it back," Magliari said. "When the trains go, they don't usually come back."
A direct impact
One of the primary purposes of the whistle-stop tour was to allow Montanans to stand up and state the case for saving Amtrak.
"We absolutely have to have this service in the community and all across the Hi-Line," Linda Keeler said. "We need to push forward with expansion. It's just necessary."
Health problems prevent her from driving for more than an hour, and Keeler said she has used the train for many long trips, particularly in the winter. Amtrak offers a safe and reliable alternative to driving during winter storms, she said. Without it, many people would be forced to brave icy roads or stay home.
The Empire Builder actually helped save her son's life several decades ago, Keeler said. The boy was 4 years old and in need of medical treatment, and Keeler was able to take him to a Minnesota hospital by riding the train. Her son is now a healthy adult, and Keeler has a granddaughter who will soon be traveling to North Dakota for college and needs Amtrak to ferry her back and forth on weekends and holidays, she said.
Carol Ortman, a preschool teacher at St. Jude's, said Amtrak is essential to her health. Ortman was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, and soon found that her condition was too severe for doctors in Havre or Great Falls to help her. She has traveled to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City for treatment several times a year for the past few years. A round-trip ticket from Havre costs her $299 in the winter.
Without Amtrak, "I would not be able to receive that standard of health care," Ortman said. "I cannot fly for $299. I cannot drive for $299, nor am I interested in doing that."
Many people with health problems along the Hi-Line utilize Amtrak, she said.
"Some of us aren't close to those urban areas, and we deserve to have the same quality of health care as those that do live in those areas," Ortman said.
Mattia Knerr, who works at the Havre Day Activity Center, a facility for the developmentally disabled, said the trains are vital to the people there.
"There are individuals there that cannot drive," she said. "They don't have a bus. Their only means of transportation is the train."
Boxcars owner Craig Anderson, whose restaurant has a contract with Amtrak to supply meals, said the Empire Builder has a direct effect his livelihood and that of his employees. He employs five people a day to prepare food for the train.
"It has an economic impact, a direct one," Anderson said.
Beth Krueger, a teacher and rail fan from Westby, said Amtrak is often unduly blamed for its trains arriving behind schedule. The freight dispatchers, not Amtrak, are responsible for those delays, she said.
"BNSF owns, maintains and dispatches these tracks," Krueger said. "In all fairness, the dispatchers are running a business, but that speaks more for additional rail for passenger trains and even for light rail."
Railroads are for people, she said.
"Economically disadvantaged people use these trains a lot," Krueger said. "(Expansion) would be a very large economic boost."
'Let's hear you squeak'
Schweitzer noted that, in politics, "It's the wheel that squeaks that gets the grease."
He encouraged Montanans to continue the fight to save Amtrak by writing, calling and sending e-mails to their congressional delegation. In Washington, D.C., 25 letters, 25 phone calls and 100 e-mails is a landslide of support that will make a difference, he said.
"Let's be proactive," Schweitzer said. "There is a war in the budget right now, and we need foot soldiers. ... Let's hear you squeak."