State, federal passenger rail funding debate


(4/12/2017)

by CHRIS ROGERS

When it comes to government funding, things are not looking good for passenger rail in Minnesota. While Amtrak ridership in Minnesota is up, both federal funding for the train’s operation and state funding for a project to offer more frequent service through Winona may be eliminated this year. Local politicians are both decrying passenger rail initiatives as wasteful government spending and urging citizens to support rail funding.

 

Trump proposes cutting Amtrak subsidies

In its 2018 budget plan, President Donald Trump’s administration proposed cutting federal subsidies for long-distance Amtrak routes, such as the Empire Builder. The rough plan does not specify exactly how or by how much Trump would cut subsidies for Amtrak, but in the plan, the Trump administration argues that long-distance trains like the Empire Builder account for most of Amtrak’s operating losses and that cutting subsidies for those trains “would allow Amtrak to focus on better managing” more cost-efficient, more heavily used train corridors. 

Across the country passenger rail advocacy groups are raising alarms that the Trump budget could spell the end for long-distance routes like the Empire Builder and shut down all Amtrak service in states like Minnesota. In a call to action last month, the National Association of Railroad Passengers warned that President Trump’s budget would terminate Amtrak service in Minnesota. In a statement, Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman was less explicit: “Today’s budget proposal to eliminate funding for Amtrak’s long distance service could impact many of the 500 communities we serve.” Some Minnesota passenger rail experts were hopeful that Twin Cities to Chicago Amtrak service would not be cut in Trump’s budget plan because it is one of the more heavily used routes.

 

Minnesota lawmakers withhold funding

On the state level, Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) Passenger Rail Office Director Dan Krom said that his office may be shuttered unless Minnesota lawmakers fund it. Governor Mark Dayton proposed $1 million to continue funding the office’s work on a second daily train between the Twin Cities and Chicago — among other projects — but so far, legislators have not included funding for the passenger rail office in any of the major budget or bonding bills. 

The city of Winona, Goodview, St. Charles, Wabasha, Winona County, and a host of other local governments along the Mississippi River have, for years, paid dues to the Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission, a group that lobbies for high speed passenger rail between the Twin Cities and Chicago by way of Winona. In recent years, the group has focused on getting a second daily train to Chicago as the most important next step for the “river route.” Supporters say a second daily Amtrak train from St. Paul to Chicago would improve the train’s reliability — because it would be less likely to be delayed in the Dakotas — give passengers more travel options, and increase ridership. In a recent letter to the editor, the city of Winona’s representative on the high speed rail commission, City Council member Paul Schollmeier, urged citizens to call Minnesota lawmakers and tell them to fund the passenger rail office. “The citizens really need to go to bat,” echoed citizen rail supporter Leone Mauszycki, of Winona. 

According to Amtrak, there were 18,893 boardings and departures at the Winona station in 2016, and a total of nearly 147,000 statewide.

The Mn/DOT Passenger Rail Office has been unaccountable to taxpayers and should be eliminated, Minnesota Representative Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) said. Year after year, new pet projects get added to Mn/DOT’s State Rail Plan without being approved by the elected legislators, he stated. “That’s not how we should be operating,” he added.

A lot of legislators dislike the Mn/DOT Passenger Rail Office because of its support for costly light rail projects in the metro area, Senator Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) explained. The office’s work to support intercity passenger rail — such as Amtrak service in Winona — gets lumped in with its work on intracity light rail, he added. Miller said that he supported amendments to budget bills and authored a standalone bill to fund the office’s work on Twin Cities to Chicago service, but the amendments failed and the standalone bill has not yet been heard in committee.

“I’ve been working extremely hard. Amtrak only touches a small portion of the communities in the state of Minnesota, so not everyone understands the importance of passenger rail. Especially being in a college community with a lot of students using the train … we know how important Amtrak is to our community,” Miller said.

 

Drazkowski’s anti-ZIP rail bill advances

Drazkowski championed a proposal to block the state or local governments from using public money to study or fund a new high-speed rail line between Rochester and the Twin Cities — a project once called ZIP Rail. His proposal might become law this spring. It made it into a “miscellaneous” section of the House of Representatives’ tax bill, and, Drazkowski hopes, will be added to the Senate’s version. Senator Mike Goggin (R-Red Wing) has championed the proposal in the Senate.

The number reason for the bill is to end “the insanity of spending any more money on passenger rail,” Drazkowski said. Each and every passenger rail project is built and paid for by taxpayers and then becomes a “perpetual liability” for taxpayers who must subsidize its operation, he argued. 

Drazkowski’s proposal would prohibit state or local governments — or Rochester’s Destination Medical Center project — from spending any public money on passenger rail between Rochester and the Twin Cities. In recent years, Mn/DOT worked on a couple different proposals for high-speed rail from med city to the Twin Cities that would have cut through private land in Drazkowski’s district. He said that people living along Highway 52 would have been subject to having their land seized for a train that would not serve them — there would have been no stops between Rochester and the Twin Cities.

What is more, Drazkowski continued, “We have driverless cars right around the corner and that technology is coming very rapidly.” Driverless cars may exponentially increase the capacity of highways, he explained. He added of funding for passenger rail, “For us to jump on a nostalgic technology that has long been replaced by cars and force people to pay for it is not in the public’s best interest.”

Air travel is heavily subsidized, too — more heavily subsidized than rail, Mauszycki said. “We need to have a realization that we need to have multiple different kinds of transportation options and that includes rail,” she argued. “If we look at other nations across the world, we can look at where they have pulled themselves farther ahead and we are becoming a third world country because we have not invested in passenger rail.”

Mauszycki and the passenger rail lobbying group All Aboard Minnesota have stated that Drazkowski’s bill might also block spending on the Mississippi River route. Draskowski said it would not, and Krom and Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission staff member Kevin Roggenbuck said they are not concerned about Drazkowski’s proposal blocking investment in the river route.

 

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