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End of the Empire? Amtrak's 15 long-distance rail lines face elimination

Millers boarding

John Mier, Amtrak conductor, checks tickets for Mary Miller, left, and her sister Naomi Miller on Monday at Amtrak's Portage station.

NOAH VERNAU/Daily Register

An uncertain future for Amtrak is the opposite of "wonderful, wonderful, wonderful" to Margo Holzman.

The Poynette resident used glowing terms to describe her long use of the Empire Builder Line as she waited for the westbound train at Amtrak’s Portage station. The train — only 8 minutes late Monday night — would take her daughter and grandchild back to Minnesota. They had attended a funeral that day.

Susan and Mike Emmerich of Robinson, Illinois, waited for the eastbound train for Effingham, Illinois. Their train arrived 5 hours late, and they didn’t mind that much. They had been visiting their daughter in Portage.

Two Amish sisters, Mary and Naomi Miller, were also on their way home to Cisne, Illinois. They had been visiting family in Dalton. They said they use Empire Builder four times a year.

What Amtrak’s Empire Builder Line provided last year for the 7,800 people who used its Portage station might get overlooked when compared with rail service in big cities — like Milwaukee’s 600,000 and Chicago’s 3.2 million total users. But Portage wouldn’t be overlooked by Holzman.

“We need it,” she said. “Every time I’ve used it, it was very important to me.”

President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would reduce Amtrak’s funding from $1.5 billion to $760 million, part of a larger package of cuts that trims $2.4 billion from federal transportation in all. That would end all of Amtrak’s long-distance routes — 15 of them — including the Empire Builder, which stretches 2,200 miles from Chicago to Seattle with Wisconsin stops in Milwaukee, Columbus, Portage, Wisconsin Dells, Tomah and La Crosse. 

As Congress decides Empire Builder’s fate, local leaders say the line’s impact in small communities isn’t told — completely — in the numbers. Empire Builder, which links Chicago and Milwaukee to St. Paul, brings people to and from vacations, families and business dealings — but the line also brings residents of big cities to the smaller places they might otherwise never find reasons to visit. 

So what would it mean if Empire Builder were gone?

Where it stands

Sen. Tammy Baldwin said in an emailed statement to the Daily Register she is a “strong supporter of reinvesting in passenger rail” and is working “across party lines” to protect routes like the Empire Builder. Baldwin supported the 2017 federal budget that increased funding for Amtrak — from $1.4 billion to $1.5 billion — she noted.

Long-distance routes like the Empire Builder achieved a “little victory” late last week when GOP appropriators in the House rejected the White House proposal, National Association of Railroad Passengers President Jim Mathews said. The lawmakers released a draft that actually would boost spending for rail by $360 million over current levels, targeting repair work along Amtrak’s northeast corridor.

Rail investments were part of the House Appropriations Committee's $17.8 billion proposal that would be $1.5 billion more than the White House transportation plan but $646 million less than current levels, cutting federal transit dollars.

The White House proposal, which cuts $2.4 billion from federal transportation in all, still needs to be sorted out by Congress in the coming months, so long-distance routes like the Empire Builder have “many steps” yet to clear, Mathews said. His organization, NARP, is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that fights for all forms of transportation, primarily passenger train services.

The proposed cuts from the White House wouldn’t kill Amtrak’s Hiawatha trains that link Chicago and Milwaukee, so Wisconsin is not among the 23 states that would lose Amtrak service entirely under the propsal, said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

While the budget is discussed behind closed doors, moving from committee to committee, the potential severing of the line’s westward links has been a topic largely exclusive to the small communities it serves.

History is at stake, some of these communities' leaders say. Amtrak’s Empire Builder Line has existed for 46 years, and the link between the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest goes all the way back to Great Northern Railway’s operation of the line from 1929 to 1970.

‘On the map’

“It’s an identity,” Steve Sobiek, the city of Portage's director of business development and planning, said of Empire Builder last week. Portage’s service started in 1971, when Amtrak rerouted Empire Builder.

Sobiek in January had beamed about Amtrak’s future while addressing business leaders from the Portage Area Chamber of Commerce. The Portage Amtrak station had seen a 27 percent increase in ridership from 2015 to 2016, he told them, far exceeding the state’s average increase of 1 percent ridership. That was the biggest increase on the line in Wisconsin.

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Waiting in Portage

Amtrak passengers, along with family and friends, wait to board trains Monday at the Portage Amtrak station.

Possible expansion of Empire Builder makes it hard for Sobiek to separate the idea of the line ending from the idea of it doubling. Discussions as of late last year had begun in Wisconsin and Minnesota for adding another train in each direction, an expansion that Sobiek said last week would “substantially increase train travel,” locally and beyond.

By removing the limitations of only one train going in each direction per day, the appeal of the Empire Builder to rural residents would change dramatically, City Manager Shawn Murphy and the Chamber’s Executive Director Marianne Hanson said.

“(Expansion) would have an impact on ridership in Portage by reducing waiting time and making more of those business trips more feasible,” said Murphy, who along with Sobiek, Mayor Rick Dodd and the Chamber, meets annually with Amtrak representatives. “This population is more sparsely populated, spread out — but that’s why we think it is so successful, because it serves a clear need for these people.”

Already, Hanson said, Portage is a “destination for people who haven’t visited here because we have an Amtrak.”

So if Amtrak has helped put small cities like Portage “on the map,” as Hanson suggested, subtracting it from the Amtrak maps is neither appetizing nor easy to picture for many people.

Down the line

Customers of Julie’s Java House in Columbus are well aware of Trump’s transportation budget proposal. The owner, Julie Hornbacher, has made sure of it.

Hornbacher, whose business has been located next to the Amtrak stop for 14 years, is encouraging people to contact their legislators in an effort to save Empire Builder. Her customers know the phone numbers and addresses of local lawmakers — she has postings on the walls — and that means they know how to “share what they feel.”

“Cutting it would affect all of the small communities, all the way out to Seattle,” said Hornbacher, who when interviewed for this story last week was in the middle of her usual 80-hour workweek. Hornbacher works 60 hours a week at the coffee house and another 20 as a part-time contractor for Amtrak, she estimated. She became the “caretaker host” in Columbus shortly after it lost its ticket agent in May of last year. Columbus had a full-service station until, she said, the number of people who purchase tickets online grew to the point where Amtrak decided to send its Columbus agent to Milwaukee.

“I open the station every day, I make sure it’s clean and I lock up at night,” Hornbacher said. She also trots over to the station during the boarding and alighting periods to answer users’ questions and help with their luggage. A lot of the people she helps each day are first-time Amtrak users.

“People come here and walk and shop and eat,” Hornbacher said. Empire Builder’s disappearance from places like Columbus 'would be catastrophic,'” she believes. Many Amtrak users in Columbus are Amish or elderly, she said, thinking of the population that would “so totally feel” the loss of rail service.

Her business itself, she added, would need to “revamp how we do things” — but it was difficult for Hornbacher to imagine the specifics of such a change.

“We’d have to do something, because Amtrak is so much a part of us.”

America’s rural population

Other Wisconsin communities that would lose their Amtrak stations include La Crosse and Tomah. Going up the Mississippi River to St. Paul and across the Great Plains — North Dakota and Montana — hundreds of thousands of Empire Builder’s users would lose service, people in rural areas who have fewer options for traveling to big cities.

In a statement emailed to the Daily Register last week, Amtrak's Magliari said the budget cut would “significantly impact the more than 30 million people who depend on Amtrak across the nation.”

Amtrak currently services 46 states — all the Lower 48 except South Dakota and Wyoming — and more than 500 communities, but the proposal would cut service in 23 states and shift “major costs onto our remaining Northeast Corridor and state-support trains, imperiling them,” Magliari said.

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Amtrak ridership, revenue for 2016

Losing 15 long-distance routes would end Amtrak’s rail services for 4.6 million passengers — 15 percent of its total ridership and 22 percent of its ticket revenue. Amtrak serves 40 percent of America’s rural population with these routes — “so they’d be lost too,” Magliari said.

Funding sources

Though Amtrak is subsidized, almost 90 percent of its funding is non-federal, Magliari said. Non-federal dollars include “state funding in some areas, and the money we bring in our own selling tickets.”

Empire Builder generated $51.7 million in passenger revenue last year and its ridership of 454,000 was up 3.7 percent. Both revenue and ridership were at record levels — for the Empire Builder line and Amtrak's entire operation — Magliari said.

Trump’s proposed transportation budget cuts came just a couple of years after the “FAST Act” authorized five years of increased funding for Amtrak, Magliari noted, with Congress recognizing, at that point, Amtrak services as a “national transportation priority.”

“Additionally,” Magliari wrote, “there is broad consensus that significant capital investment in the aging infrastructure along the Northeast Corridor is essential to meet the long term needs of the Northeast region as well as the rest of the nation.”

Empire Builder is Amtrak’s busiest long-distance route. But it does not make a profit like the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak is estimated to cover only two-thirds of Empire Builder’s total costs of operation.

Varied outlooks

Portage's station, which ranks 375th in ridership out of 534 Amtrak stations based on boarding and alighting numbers, has the fewest users among Wisconsin’s eight stops. That doesn’t mean it has been overlooked by Amtrak, Sobiek said. The company’s representatives always are looking for ways to “boost ridership,” and recently it put up a kiosk at the Portage terminal to help direct users to the downtown area.

“Clearly, the area and city residents would have one less transportation option that is energy-efficient to travel to the West Coast and to the East Coast, including the Twin Cities and Milwaukee and Chicago,” Sobiek said. “People coming to Portage visit our restaurants, bars and retail stores and gas stations.”

In Wisconsin Dells, which ranks higher than Portage in ridership — 293rd in the U.S. — Empire Builder seems less significant when compared with Portage and Columbus. Bianca Johnson, assistant director of marketing and communications of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau, noted that her city is “primarily a driving destination,” a popular destination for people from all over the U.S., so the line’s economic impact in Wisconsin Dells is minimal.

“One hundred and fifty years ago, the rail lines were very important (for the Dells),” she said. Johnson assumes that not many rural Wisconsin users could realistically use the line for work, even if they wanted to. “I’ve heard it’s not very reliable and often runs as much as two hours late.”

That doesn’t mean Johnson’s hoping the Empire Builder option is ended. “I think it’s fair to say the more options the better, for any tourist destination,” she said.

Columbus City Administrator Patrick Vander Sanden — born and raised in the city that ranks 295th in ridership — said Empire Builder is key to “showing off the historic value of the community.” That includes its “magnificent” city hall and Farmers and Merchants Union Bank designed by Louis Sullivan, not to mention its antique mall and “nice mix of restaurants downtown.”

In Washington, D.C., Mathews and the others at NARP work their way through the bureaucracy that envelops rail service funding. 

But the challenges rail services face are part of a “larger pattern,” where cuts, in general, “overwhelmingly target poorer communities” — and is part of an appropriations bills process that hasn’t “followed order” for at least 10 years.

“That’s not a train thing,” Mathews said. “That’s Washington.”

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter