President Bush’s recent budget proposal offering Amtrak $800 million through fiscal year 2009, down from nearly $1.3 billion this year, concerns both Amtrak officials and Montana lawmakers alike, though Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari points out that the proposal is far from the final step in the funding process.
Top Montana lawmakers have criticized the proposal. Democratic senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester have long been supporters of public train transportation, saying it’s particularly vital in the wide-open rural spaces of Montana. They co-sponsored a bill last October calling for higher funding for Amtrak.
Magliari said Amtrak hasn’t made its budget request to Congress yet and therefore doesn’t know how much money the company will actually get from the federal government to operate through 2009. In the past, Congress has managed to appropriate more money for Amtrak than the president proposed. Amtrak’s request is due by the end of this month.
“(The proposal) is not sufficient to operate the current system as it’s configured,” Magliari said. “But it’s also at a very early stage in the process.”
The Montana portion of the Empire Builder line, which runs from Chicago to Seattle, is Amtrak’s most popular overnight train, Magliari said. Last year 153,000 people passed through Montana on Amtrak, with 67,000 stopping in or departing from Whitefish, making it by far the most popular station in the state. The next busiest were Havre and Shelby, with around 17,000 people boarding or departing at those stations.
Sheila Bowen, president of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, said she has seen the popularity of Amtrak grow significantly over the past several years. In the past two years alone, the number of passengers riding the Empire Builder has increased by 6 percent. Amtrak’s significance, Bowen said, is two-fold: It’s an economic force and it contributes to the cozy mountain town ambience of Whitefish. People can get off the train and check out the town, giving money to local businesses.
“Economically, it brings a tremendous amount of vitality to our community,” Bowen said. “To lose Amtrak would definitely be felt.”
Magliari said last year Amtrak requested $1.7 billion and received about $1.2 billion, which has been the average over recent years. Magliari said he doesn’t know how much Amtrak will request this year or whether a smaller amount would directly affect Montana, as the state’s lawmakers fear.
“I can’t speculate on what would happen if a lower appropriation amount would be passed by Congress,” Magliari said.
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