Before voting to invest billions of dollars into passenger rail service over the next four years, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke supported an amendment that would have stripped Amtrak of all federal funding.
The Republican from Whitefish defended the vote this week, calling it a “shot across the bow” to show Amtrak that Congress is serious about reforming the passenger railroad. But rail advocates have called the vote “ludicrous” and said if Amtrak did lose federal funding, services like the Empire Builder, which serves Zinke’s hometown, would come to a screeching halt.
In a rare bipartisan vote, Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. House came together on March 4 to pass the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act. The bill will allocate $1.4 billion annually to Amtrak for the next four years and also force the government-owned railroad to increase transparency, reduce costs and “operate more like a business.”
The bill allows Amtrak to use money it makes on the Northeast Corridor, its most popular route between Boston and Washington, and reinvest it in that line instead of sending those funds into money-losing long-distance runs. The bill also demands that Amtrak improve services on its cross-country routes while also reducing costs.
Despite the bill being introduced by members of both parties, 101 Republicans voted against it, following the lead of two conservative groups, the Club For Growth and Heritage Action. The two groups said Congress should privatize the passenger rail network and end federal subsidies.
Zinke was critical of the railroad’s track record in an interview with the Beacon.
“I’m a supporter of rail but I think we need to innovate,” Zinke said. “I think it’s time we look for a better model because Amtrak’s model is not working.”
Amtrak was created in 1971 after a boom in air travel and the expansion of the highway system took a significant bite out of the passenger rail business, which was operated by private railroads. The railroad was created as a for-profit company owned and funded by the government.
While Amtrak’s shorter routes, particularly the Northeast Corridor, are profitable, its long-distance runs are expensive to maintain. According to the Brookings Institution, Amtrak’s long-distance trains, including the Empire Builder serving Montana, lost nearly $600 million in 2012.
Passenger rail advocates say that without federal funding, trains like the Empire Builder would not survive. Supporters also argue that if the government spends millions of dollars a year to maintain highways and airports, then it should do the same to support passenger rail service.
Before Congress approved the reinvestment act, California Republican Rep. Tom McClintock introduced an amendment that would eliminate all federal funding for Amtrak. Zinke joined 146 other members of Congress in supporting the amendment, which was defeated.
Zinke later voted to fund Amtrak through the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act, confusing passenger rail advocates in Montana.
“It didn’t make any sense to me. I don’t know where he’s coming from,” said Chuck McMillan, a passenger rail supporter in Helena and a retired Amtrak employee. “He may not understand the ramifications of a vote like that.”
But Zinke said he made the vote to make a point.
“This was a vote to reform Amtrak,” Zinke said. “This vote was a shot across the bow – the amendment was never going to pass anyway – but I wanted Amtrak to know that we’re serious about making them accountable.”
The congressman hopes the final bill he supported will make Amtrak more accountable to taxpayers and added that the railroad should be more open with its finances.
Much of Amtrak’s financial and budgetary information are available to the public online.
Dave Strohmaier, a former Missoula City Councilman and vocal supporter of passenger rail who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2012, said he believes Zinke was trying to make a political point.
“It sounds like political jockeying to appease more than one constituency,” Strohmaier said.
The Passenger Rail Reform and Reinvestment Act, which will now be sent to the U.S. Senate, also calls for states to have a larger role in managing routes. Some Amtrak routes, particularly in the east and west, are operated in partnership with state governments. A resolution being pushed in Helena this year calls for the Montana Legislature to form a committee to study improving, and even possibly expanding, passenger rail service in Montana. Passenger supporters have long hoped that Amtrak would restore its North Coast Hiawatha route that traveled through the southern part of the state and was discontinued in 1979. However, supporters of the legislation said that any expansion of service in southern Montana should not have a negative impact on the Empire Builder.
A year ago, the Empire Builder was struggling to stay on time and keep passengers aboard, in part because of a massive increase in freight traffic on BNSF Railway’s northern corridor. To address the delays, Amtrak modified the schedule, much to the chagrin of local businesses because the train arrived in Whitefish well before dawn and long after sunset. Even with the change, the train still struggled to stay on schedule and some months it had a zero percent on-time rating.
In January, Amtrak boldly proclaimed that the “Empire Builder is back” when it returned to its traditional schedule between Chicago, Portland and Seattle. On the first day back on the old schedule, the eastbound train rolled into Whitefish 23 minutes early and thus far the railroad has kept its promise of improved service. In January, the train had a 72 percent on-time performance.
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