Saturday, September 28, 2002

Amtrak faces additional cuts

By James Pilcher,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Amtrak, the nation's passenger rail system, is facing yet another funding crisis, with Congress potentially cutting as much as $500 million from its annual budget.

        The shortfall could mean that long-distance routes are in jeopardy, including the Cardinal line from Chicago through Cincinnati and on to Washington, which runs three times each week.

        “If this goes through, then we'll be back in the vicious cycle of Amtrak getting into a huge crunch and then people thinking Amtrak is going away and not booking reservations,” said Mike Weber, a retired Symmes Township businessman and regional coordinator for the Ohio Association of Rail Passengers who rides the service three or four times a year. “And Cincinnati would still be paying for a national service and not getting any.”

        Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee voted to give Amtrak $760 million for the coming fiscal year, well short of the $1.2 billion Amtrak requested and says it needs to keep current service going. The Senate has already voted to appropriate the full amount Amtrak has requested.

        Amtrak officials would not comment on which lines would be cut if they don't get the full amount they asked for, and would not comment on what criteria would be used to determine possible cuts.

        “We're just trying to work with the Congressional leadership as this issue goes forward,” Amtrak spokesman Howard Riefs said Friday.

        The House committee had considered requiring any long-distance line that lost more than $200 per trip to be cut, but that was not included in the final version of the bill, Amtrak officials said.

        That requirement would have affected the Kentucky Cardinal route between Louisville and Chicago, and the Three Rivers between New York and Chicago via Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Akron.

        “'They are not our dollars,”' Rep. Anne Northup, a Louisville Republican who voted for the cuts, said Thursday, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. “"They are our taxpayers' dollars.

        “And they do not believe $1.2 billion is a good idea to spend on 25 people a day (leaving) Louisville to go to Chicago to take an 11-hour train ride, that takes one hour by plane for $68 and five hours by car.”

        As for the local results, Amtrak spokesman Howard Riefs said that the 921-mile Cardinal line has actually grown in ridership over the past year, with Cincinnati ridership also increasing. He would not provide economic data for each line, saying only that all long-distance lines lose money.

        Passengers getting on or debarking a train in Cincinnati rose 33 percent from fiscal year 2000 to 2001. A Cincinnati figure for fiscal 2002, which ends for Amtrak and the rest of the federal government Monday, is not yet available.

        Yet ridership for the entire Cardinal line for the first 11 months of the current fiscal year was 69,584, up 11.4 percent compared to the same period in the previous year.

        That compares with a 3.2 percent drop in ridership along the 764-mile Capitol Limited line, which runs from Chicago to Washington through Cleveland and Pittsburgh, although total ridership is far greater than the Cardinal line at about 140,000 passengers annually.

        “It's not like a private carrier can take over and make money either,” said Howard Harding of Akron, the past president of the Ohio passengers association. “Cutting is not the answer.”




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