By Tim Leeds
Hi-Line residents are reviving a grass-roots effort to let the federal government know what Montanans want to happen to Amtrak.
"Obviously, Amtrak is of key interest to Havre," said Jerry Smith of Galata, who is working to revitalize the Save Amtrak organization. " This is a way for people to participate. The goals are to preserve the train and the jobs and the tourism."
Amtrak filed notices that it may have to cancel long-distance passenger train routes, including the Empire Builder that travels across the Hi-Line, if Congress doesn't appropriate the full $1.2 billion it requested for next year's budget.
Smith was one of the organizers of Save Amtrak in 1995, when it was formed in response to Amtrak cutting its Montana service from seven to four days a week. The service was returned to seven days a week about a year later because the cut in service reduced profits instead of raising them, Amtrak officials said in March.
Save Amtrak can't take all of the credit for the return to seven-day service, but it had an impact, Smith said.
"I think it was a great grass-roots effort," he said. " The end result was, Amtrak was returned to seven days a week."
The goal of the new effort is not to educate Montana politicians about the need to keep Amtrak, Smith said, as much as it is to educate Montanans and give them the chance to let their voices be heard. Gov. Judy Martz and the state's congressmen already know how important the passenger train is to Montana, he said.
But the grass-roots movement will have an impact in Washington, D.C., Smith said. Several bills have been proposed about Amtrak, he said, and Save Amtrak will let people comment on them and other Amtrak issues.
Reviving Save Amtrak is in its very early stages, added Smith, who hopes the organizers can start meeting with Amtrak and government officials next week to see what Save Amtrak can do.
Smith said the group plans to eventually have a Web site online, and will probably hold a public meeting in Havre in the near future to let people comment, ask questions and discuss their options.
Congress is in recess this week, and Montana's congressmen say it's too early to say what will come out of appropriations for Amtrak, but they still support fully funding the transportation corporation and keeping the Empire Builder running.
A spokeswoman for the Transportation subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee said the only number on the table Amtrak right now is President Bush's proposal. Bush proposed about $521 million, slightly over half of Amtrak's request. She added that appropriations bills aren't typically finalized until summer.
Dallas Lawrence, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said Rehberg still supports fully funding Amtrak's needs.
"Our position hasn't changed," Lawrence said.
Spokesmen for Montana's senators agreed.
"Conrad is still 100 percent behind fully funding Amtrak," said J.P. Donovan, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.
It's still far too early to say what will come out of the appropriations process, Donovan said.
Bill Lombardi, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said Baucus will continue to advocate fully funding Amtrak.
"It's so important for the economy on the Hi-Line and the rest of Montana," Lombardi said.