While congressional Republicans have said much of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget is “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill, Wisconsin’s congressional delegation should keep a fork handy to spear his proposed passenger rail cuts.
Amtrak is on Trump’s spit, and he has proposed a $2.4 billion cut in the federal transportation budget, dropping it by 13 percent.
The cuts would be focused outside the Northeast corridor of the United States, which would be spared, and would spell the death of the Empire Builder, the 2,200-mile passenger rail line that runs though the heart of the Upper Midwest and provides needed service to thousands of passengers in cities and small towns from Chicago to Seattle and Portland.
While the Chicago-to-Milwaukee link would still be served by Amtrak’s Hiawatha trains, the westward links would be severed, ending service at dozens of smaller communities like Columbus, Portage, Tomah, Wisconsin Dells and La Crosse, and then up the Mississippi River to St. Paul.
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That has raised eyebrows — and hackles — in communities along the route which fear the impact of the loss of rail service to their economies and to the connectivity it provides to larger metro areas and their services. Those same concerns are echoed across the Great Plains — from Minnesota through North Dakota and Montana where the Empire Builder provides one of the few non-motor vehicle links to urban areas.
Yes, passenger rail service is subsidized — just as most other forms of transportation across the country are subsidized in one way or another. The Empire Builder generated $51.7 million in passenger revenue last year and its ridership of 454,000 was up 3.7 percent. That covers almost two-thirds of its cost of operation and is the most-traveled long distance route in the country.
While the Northeast Corridor may turn a profit, the president’s cuts fail to understand that for many citizens in the Midwest and West, passenger rail service is more vital and the need for connectivity to cities and medical services should be maintained.
Congress, which holds the power of the purse, should look at the impact of these proposed cuts beyond the Washington Beltway — and our congressional delegation, along with those in Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana — should be there to make sure the less populous areas of the country don’t get the short end of the budget stick.