Havre Daily News
The National Association of Railroad Passengers has a message for politicians who would vote to slash federal funding for Amtrak: “Voting against rail is all pain and no gain.”
Those are the words of association president George Chilson, who joined regional passenger rail advocates and an Amtrak spokesman in Havre on Saturday to discuss the federal fight over Amtrak's funding.
President Bush's suggestion is $900 million. Amtrak officials have said they need $1.6 billion to continue operating at the current level, and spokesman Marc Magliari said the railroad needs a stable, long-term funding package that would enable it to plan more than one year ahead.
Magliari said Amtrak officials annually review and update the railroad's five-year plans for infrastructure and operations improvements, but simply do not have the funding to pay for any of the planned progress. Many in Washington, D.C., have called for reforms to Amtrak's operations, the money needed for those improvements has not materialized, he said.
“To say we don't do enough and then not give us enough to do anything doesn't sound like common sense to most people,” Magliari said.
He called Bush's $900 million request a “starting point,” echoing the words of Amtrak acting president and CEO David Hughes, and recalled Bush's zero-funding request, made last year. The president eventually signed off on $1.3 billion for Amtrak.
Magliari said the railroad could better operate with a three- to five-year stable funding authorization from Congress.
Chilson said the U.S. needs to spend between $3 billion and $4 billion a year to bring the country's public rail system up to snuff. Some of that money would be for interstate transportation, and some Chilson said should be given to states that could then decide whether to hire Amtrak or another entity to provide intercity passenger service.
“Transportation is something that is so important to our economic development, freedom to travel and our quality of life, that it must be a public - not private sector - responsibility,” Chilson said in an interview.
He called the association a “revitalized” group that is working on a grass-roots level to educate members of Congress on the need for the U.S. to have a modern, publicly funded rail system. He said the organization needs to be focused and unified in its message - the U.S. needs a modern rail system.
“What we need is more trains, more often, to more places,” Chilson said. “We need to provide people with a mobility choice that's more attractive than the car.
“The only way we can reach our objective is through legislation, and that means we must become involved in the political process,” he added.
Chilson said that the U.S. - a nation he said prides itself in having the best - has the “most vulnerable and lowest quality rail system of any industrialized nation.”
Chilson derided statements made by critics of Amtrak and what he called “smoke-and-mirrors accounting” used to justify the $900 million request in the president's 2007 budget.
Critics have railed against Amtrak's long-range service, calling it unprofitable and too costly. Chilson said some have tried to pit Amtrak's northeastern corridor operations against the long-distrance trains like the Empire Builder.
“You can make the numbers say anything you want,” Chilson said.
He said the association did a study of Amtrak's costs - in a study that was reviewed and approved by Amtrak's accountants - that shows the federal costs of operating long-distance trains are 25 percent less per passenger-mile than the railroad's Northeast operations.
Magliari fondly remebers a visit to Havre less than a year ago. He was along for the ride when Gov. Brian Schweitzer and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus rode the Empire Builder through Havre in June. He said the whistle-stop tour and accompanying rally were an example to the rest of the nation - one that showed what can happen when the people stand up and demand something from their elected officials.
“The Montana success story is something I preach across the country,” Magliari said. “They filled that room at the Eagles to talk about this issue. I think most of the country heard from Montana.”