Tim Leeds Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
The U.S. Senate this week passed, on a 70-22 vote, a bill authorizing the only east-west public transportation service on the Hi-Line: Amtrak. “We’re thankful for the overwhelming support from the Senate and look forward to working with members of the House on their version of this bill,” Marc Magliari, Amtrak spokesman from Chicago, said Wednesday. The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Mary Kerr, press secretary for the House committee, said Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., the chair of the committee and a supporter of Amtrak, intends to take up the reauthorization early next year. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said he will support the bill when it gets to the House. “Amtrak is critical to the Hi-Line,” Rehberg said. “I’m a strong support of Amtrak in Congress and have been successful in defeating many attempts by the president to cut funding for Amtrak. I’ve also repeatedly supported funding Amtrak at a level of $2 billion per year, which goes above and beyond what the Senate has passed. I look forward to my colleagues in the House quickly taking up the Amtrak reauthorization legislation so that we can k e e p Mo n t a n a ’ s Empire Builder running.” The bill, which authorizes Congress to appropriate funds up to $11.4 billion for the operation of the national passenger rail service for 2007-2012, has already found opposition from the administration of President Bush, The Associated Press reports. The administration said it opposes the bill because it falls short of demands including allocating resources based on passenger rail service demand, investing more money in the profitable Northeast Corridor of the service and opening up to competition. In a statement, the administration said it will not fund Amtrak at the levels authorized in the legislation, which includes more than $1.6 billion for 2007, more than $1.7 billion for 2008, and ends with authorization for nearly $2 billion in 2012. Amtrak again faced opposition from the administration in its funding for this year, which has not been approved. Magliari said the bill that would fund Amtrak for the year starting Oct. 1 is in conference committee, having differences between the Senate and House version being ironed out. The passenger rail corporation is now running on a continuing resolution based on last year’s funding. The Senate version for this year’s funding includes $1.37 billion for Amtrak while the House has $1.4 billion. Amtrak requested $1.87 billion, while the Bush administration requested $800 million. The administration has continually voiced opposition to subsidizing the operation. When Amtrak was formed in the early 1970s, it was with the intent it would eventually become self-sufficient, but it has never had revenues exceed its expenses. Supporters say that is universal no public rail system in the world is able to make a profit and all depend on subsidies, they say. In its b i l l , the Senate expressed support for the system. “It is the sense of the Senate that: long-distance passenger rail is a vital and necessary part of our national transportation system and economy Amtrak should maintain a national passenger rail system, including long-distance routes, that connects the continental United States from coast to coast and from border to border.” Amtrak has had increased success in its ridership. It reports that for the fiscal year just ended it had the fifthstraight year of an increase in the number of passengers on the trains, and an 11 percent increase in ticket revenues with a total of $1.5 billion. The Empire Builder is listed as the most popular train. It had an increase of 1.6 percent in riders, totalling more than 500,000 for the year. Montana’s Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both co-sponsors of the authorization bill, said Amtrak’s continuing to function is vital for Montana. “The Empire Builder is the lifeline of the Hi-Line,” Baucus said. “It’s good-paying jobs and helps us to transport cargo across the state. I t also enables us to travel for work and to v i s i t family and friends.” Tester, who added an amendment to examine bringing back an Amtrak line across the southern part of Montana, said. “Amtrak ties together rural towns across the Hi-Line, keeping Montana’s economy on track and provides a smart travel option for hundreds of thousands of folks.” Tester’s addition to the proposed authorization is bringing back an Amtrak line in the southern part of Montana. His amendment directs Amtrak to look into the feasibility of once again running the route of the North Coast Hiawatha, which was discontinued in 1979, on the condition it not negatively impact existing Amtrak routes including the Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Seattle and Portland through the northern part of Montana including Havre. The southern route also ran between Chicago and Seattle, passing through Glendive, Miles City, Billings, Bozeman, Bu t t e a n d Mi s s o u l a i n Montana. “If we can get passenger train service through southern Montana back on track without jeopardizing the Empire Builder, what are we waiting for?” Tester asked. Magliari said Amtrak is interested in opening new routes. “Our position as a company is we want to grow this business. We want to become even more relevant in even more parts of the country,” he said. Informat ion f rom The Associated Press was used in this story.