Trump budget threatens Empire Builder

by Heidi Desch, Whitefish Pilot

A budget proposal by President Trump could impact Amtrak travel across the country including on the Empire Builder.

The plan calls for an end to federal support for Amtrak’s long-distance train service, which includes the Empire Builder. The Empire Builder provides regional rail service making stops in Montana at Whitefish, West Glacier, Essex, Libby, Glasgow, Malta, Havre, Shelby, Cut Bank, Browning, East Glacier and Wolf Point.

The president’s 2018 budget outline released last month proposes to cut the Department of Transportation’s budget by 13 percent or $2.4 billion. The cuts would completely eliminate funding for Amtrak’s long-distance routes.

The budget documents note that Amtrak’s long-distance train service “incur the vast majority of Amtrak’s operating losses. This would allow Amtrak to focus on better managing its state-supported and Northwest Corridor train services.”

Whitefish is Amtrak’s busiest stop in Montana, with about 54,000 riders coming here in 2016 on the Empire Builder route. Some 123,600 passengers got off an Amtrak train in Montana last year.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester does not support the cut and says he will be fighting as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee to protect funding for the Empire Builder.

“Threatening access to small businesses and slashing funding for Amtrak will hurt rural communities like Whitefish,” Tester said in a statement to the Pilot. “The Empire Builder is an economic driver in the Flathead, and gutting funding for it could put jobs on the line. I will keep fighting to ensure this Administration doesn’t forget about Montanans and rural America. We need a budget that works for rural towns, allows folks to get out and explore our public lands like Glacier National Park, and supports the jobs that come with our outdoor economy.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines in a letter to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao in January outlined the importance of rural transportation including Amtrak. He also invited Chao to Montana to see how important that transportation is to the economy.

“In my conversations with Secretary Chao, I have consistently prioritized the importance of Amtrak to rural Montana,” Daines said in a statement to the Pilot. “We need to make government more efficient and effective without reducing funding for important programs and disconnecting rural communities.”

Daines is a member of both the authorizing and appropriating committees in the U.S. Senate responsible for federal transportation programs – the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee.

Amtrak operates 15 long-distance trains and combined carried 4.6 million passengers in fiscal year 2016, according to Amtrak. Amtrak’s 2016 financial plan notes that long distance routes are the “backbone” of the national system connecting more than half of the states and stations Amtrak serves.

“These trains are heavily patronized, and increasingly important to the communities and people along their routes that have been losing bus and air services,” the report notes.

Despite record revenue totaling $3.2 billion in fiscal year 2016, Amtrak operated at a net loss of about $227 million – which is a reduction of $78 million from the previous year.

Amtrak President and CEO Wick Moorman, in a February hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security, called for an investment in Amtrak’s infrastructure, fleet and stations.

“The time is now to invest in our aging assets,” Moorman said. “More than ever, our nation and the traveling public rely on Amtrak for mobility, but the future of Amtrak depends on whether we can renew the cars, locomotives, bridges, tunnels, stations and other infrastructure that allows us to meet these growing demands.”

Moorman noted that in fiscal year 2016 Amtrak had record ridership of more than 31 million passengers and ticket revenues of $2.2 billion.

The National Association of Rail Passengers denounced Trump’s budget saying cuts to Amtrak, transit, and commuter rail programs, and even air service to rural towns, would place a disproportionate amount of pain on rural and working class communities.

NARP President Jim Mathews in a prepared release said by eliminating Amtrak’s long distance trains it would cut a vital service that connects small town economies to the rest of the U.S.

“What’s more, these proposed cuts come as President Trump continues to promise that our tax dollars will be invested in rebuilding America’s infrastructure,” Mathews said. “Instead, we have seen an all-out assault on any project – public and private – that would advance passenger rail. These cuts and delays are costing the U.S. thousands of good-paying construction and manufacturing jobs in America’s heartland at this very moment.”

In addition to eliminating funding for Amtrak’s long-distance routes, the budget calls for the privatization of air traffic control, eliminating subsidies for commercial flights to rural airports and cut nearly a half-billion dollars from the federal transportation program, known as TIGER grants.