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Amtrak service from St. Louis to Kansas City, Chicago could face cuts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 12, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Amtrak is warning that state-supported passenger rail service in Missouri and Illinois could be canceled if a U.S. House Republican transportation spending plan becomes law. The cuts could affect two daily St. Louis-Kansas City trains and three of the five trains between St. Louis and Chicago.

Calling the restrictions in the GOP spending bill "shortsighted," Amtrak president and chief executive Joseph Boardman said in a statement that the House transportation appropriations bill would "result in the loss of jobs and reverse significant progress made to use passenger rail to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil."

The appropriations bill, which funds the federal transportation and housing departments, is still in the early stages of consideration by Congress and likely will change. As approved by the House subcommittee, the bill stipulates that none of the federal Amtrak subsidy money "may be used to fund operating expenses for state-supported routes."

Amtrak says that provision would "eliminate nearly 150 weekday state-supported trains," affecting more than 9 million passengers a year who ride those trains in Missouri, Illinois and 13 other states. Marc Magliari, spokesman in Amtrak's Chicago office, told the Beacon on Monday that the St. Louis-Kansas City trains would be among those cancelled, as would three of the five daily trains between St. Louis and Chicago. Ridership has generally increased on those routes, he said.

"That [Republican] appropriations bill would devastate funding for transportation and have a negative impact on jobs," complained U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis. He told the Beacon on Monday that he would support House Democratic efforts to try to amend that legislation -- as well as to shape the separate transportation authorization bill -- to preserve the Amtrak routes and restore some transportation funding.

"Republican attacks on Amtrak are nothing new," said Carnahan, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee. "They proposed privatizing the profitable parts of Amtrak in the Northeast and shutting down the rest. That's the wrong direction after so many years of trying to build cooperation among federal, state and local governments to build up our rail capacity."

Another member of the transportation panel, Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, also said through a spokesman that he would oppose such Amtrak cuts. In June, Costello criticized a bill backed by the panel's Republicans (the Competition for Intercity Passenger Rail in America Act) that would abolish Amtrak and privatize rail service in the Northeast.

Costello said he was "committed to working together in a bipartisan fashion to support Amtrak, continue to increase ridership and further develop high-speed rail as we move forward with a surface transportation reauthorization bill in Congress."

Under congressional procedures, the authorizing legislation is considered on a separate track from the transportation appropriations bill, which got subcommittee approval last week. Defending that bill was House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., who called it an example of the Republicans' "commitment to return our government to some semblance of fiscal sanity by restoring responsibility, restraint and thoughtfulness to the budgeting process." He said the Transportation Department as a whole would get a slight increase -- $16.7 billion, $3 billion more than in the current fiscal year -- although cuts in the HUD budget would keep the overall budget below present levels in this category.

But Tom Carper, chairman of Amtrak's board, complained that the GOP restriction on Amtrak funding "penalizes states that have made investments in passenger rail, some of which have contributed toward costs for nearly 40 years." Under a 2008 law, Amtrak is working with its partners in Missouri, Illinois and other states to develop a common approach to sharing more of the operating and capital costs of state-supported trains.

In addition to Missouri and Illinois, states that provide state-supported Amtrak service are: California, Maine, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

If Congress adopts the subcommittee's funding plan, Carper argued, it would "force an unwelcome decision on states who clearly want to preserve and expand passenger rail service." In addition, he said, cutting back service would "kill an engine of local and regional economic growth much needed today."

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