By Tim Leeds
The revitalized Save Amtrak organization wants help from people on the Hi-Line to keep the Empire Builder running through Montana.
"Save Amtrak is you guys, not me," Jerry Smith said at a meeting Monday. " Tell me what you want Save Amtrak to do."
Representatives of city and county governments and Chambers of Commerce, legislators and residents along the Hi-Line route of the Empire Builder came to an organizational meeting at the Triangle Telephone Cooperative hospitality room. More than 50 people heard an update about Amtrak and listened to representatives of U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns and Rep. Denny Rehberg.
Smith is reorganizing Save Amtrak, a group formed in 1994 to restore Empire Builder service to seven days a week after it was cut to four days a week. The service was returned to seven days a week a year later.
Amtrak announced in February that if it did not receive the full $1.2 billion budget it requested, it may have to eliminate some long-distance passenger routes and would issue a formal notice by March 29 about which routes could be eliminated. Amtrak did not make the formal notice, but Amtrak spokeswoman Kathleen Cantillon said Monday that if Congress does not fund the routes, they still could be eliminated.
"When train service rests on federal appropriations, formal notice is not needed," she said.
Montana's congressional delegation has said it will support saving Amtrak's long-distance services. Baucus and Burns, along with 26 other senators, have signed on as co-sponsors of a bill by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., that would provide Amtrak with $4.6 billion a year for the next five years, nearly four times what Amtrak asked for. President Bush has proposed spending $521 million.
Hollings wants to provide significant federal long-term funding for Amtrak, similar to federal funding of the highway system, the senator's spokesman, Andy Davis, said Monday.
"Our traditional action is to give a Band-Aid and let them limp along year after year," Davis said.
Kim Falcon, a Baucus staffer, said members of Save Amtrak need to get together and create a strategic plan, including how Montana's delegation fits into that plan.
Burns staffer Sarah Converse agreed.
"You need to come up with a plan that's on paper," she said, so everyone has common goals they are working toward.
A Web site for Montana's Save Amtrak will hopefully be up soon, Smith said, giving people a location to gather information and make suggestions. He said today that meetings are being organized in other communities along the Hi-Line, and planning for a large public meeting will probably start soon.
Falcon said letters to the delegation will help them, but the person who really needs to be persuaded is Bush.
Bush has been asked to state his position on Amtrak, Smith said, but the president has not defined it.
Some of the suggestions during the meeting included launching a letter-writing campaign to Congress and the president, and contacting groups that use the Empire Builder, like the AARP, skiing organizations and national organizations for people with disabilities, to help lobby on the issue.
Smith said letters should have specific requests, like keeping long-distance trains running or changing the organization of Amtrak to better represent Montana, rather than a blanket endorsement of Amtrak's budget requests.
State Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, suggested finding an issue, like the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, that could raise interest in other states to keep the Empire Builder running in Montana.
State Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, and Craig Erickson of Bear Paw Development Corp. said serious questions exist about the management and oversight of Amtrak.
Mike Waite, Rehberg's representative at the meeting, said Rehberg will do whatever it takes to keep the Empire Builder running, but some things will have to happen with Amtrak's management and budget. Whatever is making the service lose money needs to be discovered and corrected, he said.
"What's the problem that's what they have to find out," Way said.
Converse said requests have been made to the General Accounting Office to look into management and budgeting issues at Amtrak. The GAO has several studies relating to Amtrak ongoing right now, and will testify in congressional hearings about the passenger service this week, GAO spokeswoman Laura Kopelson said.
Amtrak probably has done some questionable things in running the passenger service, Smith said, but Congress is not without blame. Congress has only funded about 60 percent of Amtrak's budget requests for the last five years, forcing Amtrak to find services and programs to cut to meet its budget, he said.
"If you're going to kick the butt of Amtrak, you also need to kick the butt of Congress," Smith said.
Cantillon said Amtrak has no intention of cutting any long-distance services unless Congress doesn't appropriate enough to pay for them.
"It's business as usual for Amtrak right now," she said.
What services are cut if enough money isn't appropriated hasn't been decided either, she said. That would all depend on how much money Amtrak receives.
Amtrak will provide as much notice as possible for its passengers and employees if it does cut any routes, Cantillon said, but it has already provided general notice. As well as its February notification that lines might be cut, it sent letters Friday to the governors of the 46 states that could be affected.
"This should really not come as any surprise to anybody," she said.