PORTLAND — Passenger rail advocates in Maine are worried about the latest attempt by some members of Congress to reduce the federal deficit by slashing Amtrak’s budget.

A funding bill passed by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing earlier this month would cut Amtrak’s budget by 60 percent and essentially shut down short-distance trains like the Downeaster.

The action comes at a time when ridership on “state-supported” train routes – those under under 750 miles – is up more than 6 percent in the last fiscal year; ridership on the Downeaster has increased even more, nearly 9 percent.

“It seems odd that at a time when people are responding so well to passenger rail and depending on it more for a mode of transportation, that it would be threatened and cut,” said Patricia Quinn, executive director of Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which manages the Downeaster service between Portland and Boston.

The House bill would reduce Amtrak’s annual operating budget from $563 million this year to $227 million. It would also prevent federal funding from being applied to state-supported train routes. Currently, these shorter distance routes are jointly funded by the states the trains travel through and by the federal government.

Considered a state-supported route because of its length, the Downeaster’s $7.5 million operating budget is entirely paid for by the state of Maine. About $6 million of that comes from federal money that Maine’s Department of Transportation chooses to spend on passenger rail service, and the remaining $1.5 million is derived from sales tax revenue on rental cars.

But the $7.5 million budget only reflects about 85 percent of the cost of operating the Downeaster. The other 15 percent is borne by Amtrak, and if the House budget cuts are approved by the U.S. Senate, Mainers will be forced to absorb that additional cost.

If they can’t, or aren’t willing to pay, the service will likely be unable to continue, said Malcom Kenton, director of Outreach and Engagement at the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a Washington D.C.-based rail policy advocacy group.

It’s not only the Downeaster that would be affected by the “kill-Amtrak bill,” as the NARP has dubbed the proposal. Shorter-distance trains around the country would all be threatened, including the Capital Corridor in northern California, Pacific Surf Liner in southern California, and the Carolinian/Piedmont between New York and Charlotte, N.C.

If these train routes disappear, the long-distance routes that survive (because they are entirely federally funded) would have to pay for overhead costs – such as Amtrak’s online reservation system and maintenance facilities – that are currently shared among all trains.

Those additional costs would make it nearly impossible for the long-distance routes, like the Lakeshore Limited between Boston and Chicago, to survive, according to Ross Capon, NARP president.

“The entire railroad will shut down because $227 million doesn’t work” to cover all of Amtrak’s expenses, he said.

“I believe (the U.S. representatives that supported the bill) must understand it’s really a shut-down budget.”

In the House, the bill now moves to the full Appropriations Committee before being taken up on the Republican-controlled House floor. Another funding bill is under consideration in the Senate, although Capon said the cuts to Amtrak are likely to be less severe in the Democrat-controlled chamber. The two legislative bodies will then meet to work out the differences between the two versions of the funding bill.

Although Quinn said it is unlikely the version of the bill passed by the House subcommittee would be the final version, she said Mainers should still be concerned about the impact that losing the Downeaster could have on the state.

“Eighty people would be put out of work tomorrow” if the bill survives, she said, and the expected extension of passenger rail service to Brunswick would never happen.

She encouraged communities and Maine residents that benefit from Downeaster service to contact Maine’s congressional delegation.

“It’s important that communities express their concern and have a voice,” she said, “we can’t just sit back and say, ‘Oh that’s ridiculous, (the bill) will never go anywhere.”

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

Sidebar Elements

Brunswick council, Pingree oppose Amtrak budget cut

BRUNSWICK — The Town Council is weighing in on a proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives to cut Amtrak’s federal funding.

On Monday, the council unanimously authorized Town Manager Gary Brown to send a letter to Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, expressing the town’s support for Amtrak and its Downeaster passenger service.

Brown’s letter notes the investments both the state and the town have made in extending Downeaster service to Brunswick, and a $35 million federal grant to upgrade the railroad between Brunswick and Portland.

“The community and the region are very excited knowing that the arrival of the train is just over a year way,” the letter said.

The letter also points out that passenger rail service reduces vehicle traffic and deterioration of highways, and has the potential to drive economic growth in the region.

“Please continue to support the funding for this important and critical service for Maine,” it concludes.

Although Rep. Pingree does not sit on the appropriations subcommittee that proposed the funding cuts, she expressed her frustration with the proposal in a press release on Tuesday.

“In this struggling economy, we need to create and support jobs. Rail projects like these not only offer work to those who build them, but also to the businesses that develop around them,” Pingree said. “Now is not the time to pull investments from our crumbling and outdated infrastructure.”

— Emily Guerin

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