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Tester gets OK for Amtrak route study

WASHINGTON — Supporters of re-establishing a railroad passenger line that ran from Billings to Missoula and beyond have made a stride forward, but questions remain over who would pay for the service.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., successfully passed through the U.S. Senate a measure that would require Amtrak to study possible reinstatement of the old North Coast Hiawatha Route. Amtrak ended the route in 1979 in a cost-cutting move.

The U.S. House has not yet begun to craft its version of the bill. Even if the measure were passed this year and the study completed, government funding still would need to be found.

The Montana Association of Railroad Passengers will have a public meeting on the subject Feb. 29 in Helena, with presentations from a variety of railroad, state and federal officials.

But Jim Green, president of the association, was not optimistic about the outcome.

“It’s not going to have any real effect, because we don’t have any money, and that’s the bottom line,” Green said.

The old route went through Glendive, Billings, Bozeman, Butte and Missoula and on to Idaho.

Tester added his measure as an amendment to the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2007. It would give Amtrak one year from the time the bill was signed into law to conduct a one-time evaluation of the old route to determine whether to reinstate passenger service along it or along segments of it.

The legislation requires that such service would not “negatively impact” existing Amtrak routes, a provision meant to protect Montana’s current route, the Empire Builder.

Marc Magliari, the Chicago-based spokesman for Amtrak, said Amtrak would “gladly” carry out such a study.

“We are excited about that, and look forward to doing that, should the measure reach passage,” he said. “We want to expand our network and carry more passengers.”

Magliari said that until the study is done, it would be premature to speculate on the cost of the service and who would pay for it.

“The first task is to look at the route and its prospects,” he said. “It is only then we can know how much funding is needed and from which sources.”

But he pointed out that Amtrak has done or is doing studies for several other states that want routes reinstated, including Illinois, Iowa and Oklahoma. He said the studies “basically develop a price tag” and then discussions continue if the state wants to proceed.

“These are basically state-supported services, that’s our fastest-growing business,” he said. That means the states pay all the direct costs, such as salaries, fuel and payments to the host railroads, while Amtrak absorbs the indirect costs. In such cases, Amtrak bears about 25 percent of the costs, he said.

Asked about having the state bear most of the costs in Montana, Tester said, “I don’t think that dog will hunt.” Last April, the Montana state Senate rejected several attempts to provide money for restoring the route.

Tester said the funding to operate the route would have to come from the federal government.

His study would determine both potential ridership and cost-effectiveness, he noted. “Then we’ll have to weight that out,” he said. “With $100-a-barrel oil now, it’ll make sense economically do to this if the ridership is there.”

Lawmakers would have to see if Amtrak’s budget “can handle it (and) if it can’t, we make some adjustments” to Amtrak funding levels, Tester said.

Multi-year funding authorization for Amtrak expired in 2003, and Congress has had to approve its budget each year since then. President Bush has repeatedly proposed cutting Amtrak’s budget, but Congress has not gone along. Bush proposes to decrease Amtrak funding by more than $500 million to $800 million in 2009.

But in October the Senate signaled strong support for Amtrak by approving, 70-22, a bill with $11.4 billion to keep Amtrak running for the next six years. That was the bill to which Tester attached his amendment. But the House has not yet begun to craft its version of the funding bill.

The route would help the state economically, Tester said. “In a state like Montana we’re so big and so spread out, it would just make things more accessible, from health care to business.”

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Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., also support re-establishing the route.

In June, Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger testified before a House subcommittee that from Montana’s perspective, the greatest need is for a policy that includes long-distance routes with a multi-year federal funding package.

“Once Congress establishes a policy that preserves existing passenger rail service, Amtrak can also consider restoring other routes it has dropped in the past such as the North Coast Hiawatha Route that previously crossed southern Montana,” he testified. “The majority of Montana’s population lives along this route.”

Green of the rail passenger group doubted that the bill would become law this year, given the busy schedule and the heightened politics of an election year. He said that four years ago, a bill got through the Senate but never made it out of the House.

“It’s not going to be done this year, we all know that,” he said. “The politics isn’t there; so it depends on who comes out on top in November whether this will fly at all.”

He noted that the study would look at re-establishing either the whole line or just portions of it.

“We’re saying here that if we could get walking and crawling before trying to run down the tracks, why don’t we try to get service between Billings and Missoula, or Billings and Spokane,” he said.

Green said that going west from Missoula there are many sharp curves that would require track work. And east of Billings would be “a real problem” because the tracks are busy with Power River Basin coal traffic.

The meeting in Helena next week will include time for public comment followed by presentations by officials from the state Department of Transportation, Amtrak, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and Montana Rail Link and representatives of all three congressional offices and the governor’s office, among others.

“We’re going to get people excited and maybe through that excitement people will say we have to do something,” he said.

Montana now has one Amtrak route, the Empire Builder that runs along the Hi-Line daily from Chicago to Spokane, and then on to Seattle and Portland.

The Empire Builder stops at a dozen Montana stations with a total of 153,171 people boarding or alighting there in federal fiscal year 2007. Ridership on the whole route increased by 1.6 percent in fiscal year 2007 to 504,977, making it the most popular Amtrak long-distance train for the fourth consecutive year.

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