Tim Leeds Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
The president and chief executive officer of Amtrak assured Montanans Saturday that they should have no fears that they may lose long-distance passenger rail. “We’re going to keep running the Empire Builder and Amtrak,” Joe Boardman said at a press conference in Havre Saturday. Boardman, riding the train across the country, arrived in Havre late the Empire Builder was delayed more than an hour by detours to avoid problems caused by the flooding in Minnesota and North Dakota. When he arrived in Havre he was met by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and a representative of Sen. Max Baucus, Dmont., when he stepped off the Empire Builder. The future of the United States’ passenger rail service, established by Congress in 1972, was a concern over the first part of the decade when shortfalls in funding requested by President George W. Bush raised fears the service would lose some routes like the Empire Builder, which stops in Hi-Line communities including Havre en router from Chicago to Portland, Ore, and Seattle or shut down altogether. The passenger rail service’s future looks a little different now, with Congress authorizing up to $2.5 billion a year for its operations over the next five years, and President Barack Obama pushing for rebuilding its infrastructure and implementing high-speed rail lines on the system. Boardman said the Empire Builder “absolutely” could be one of the lines upgraded through Obama’s high-speed rail plan. In the plan, $8 billion has been set aside through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, the stimulus package passed by Congress in February, to provide high-speed upgrades. The annual budget also will include $1 billion a year for five years for that purpose. The moneys will be awarded for upgrades through a competitive process, with different routes justifying why they should receive the funding. Boardman said segments of the Empire Builder route defini t e ly could qual i fy for upgrades, eventually leading to trains running at 90 mph to 100 mph on the route. The stimulus bill also authorized $1.3 billion for infrastructure improvements, including work on train stations, tracks, and rehabilitating 68 stored or damaged passenger cars to bring them back into service. The stimulus package is bringing $2.5 million to Montana to upgrade the 11 stations here, primarily providing access to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Havre station is slated to receive $35,000 to install a new wheelchair lift and to make improvements to the sidewalk from the train station to the platform. Tester said it was important Boardman, who is from the eastern seaboard, see how the rail service functions in this part of the United States. “It’s great to have him out here to see the role Amtrak plays in rural Montana,” Tester said, adding that Amtrak impacts the economy, tourism, people going to work or to medical appointments, and just the opportunity to see family and friends. A study Tester pushed through Congress in 2007, to see the viability of restoring the North Coast Hiawatha route that ran through southern Montana including from Billings through Missoula, is expected to be complete this fall. The study requires showing that restoring the route would not negatively impact the Empire Builder. Baucus’ representative read a letter from the senator, who expressed regret that he couldn’t be at the press conference in person. “Riding the Empire Builder as a child is one of my fondest memories and something I still take great pleasure in today,” Baucus wrote in the letter. Baucus added in the letter that he wants to work with Amtrak to improve transportation in the country. “The time has come to reassess our transportation network,” Baucus wrote. “Time to find transportation solutions that preserve our outdoor heritage while boosting businesses and encouraging economic growth.” Boardman said if the study on the North Coast Hiawatha route shows potential, Amtrak certainly will consider restoring the route. What needs to be shown is that people would use the route, which also would be a consideration in looking to increase connections between locations in Montana, he said. The trip on the Empire Builder was his first across the Hi -Line, Boardman sai d Saturday, and showed him how much the train is used. People were getting on and off at virtually every stop, he said. “All along we picked up people and dropped off people,” Boardman said.