House votes to restore Amtrak funding
Reversing an earlier House committee decision, the full House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly last week to restore full funding for Amtrak operations.
The surprising turn-around came after President Bush had recommended gutting the $1.2 billion rail service budget, eliminating Montana's Empire Builder and other passenger routes outside the nation's northeast corridor.
The funding package now moves to the Senate for consideration.
Lincoln County Commissioner Rita Windom cheered the House results, noting that thousands of people get on or off the train each year in Libby. Local ridership numbers in the past seven years have ranged from 4,003 annually to a high of 5,528.
"That's 5,500 people who would have to find alternate transportation," Windom said. "This is great news for our community."
Libby Chamber of Commerce president Dave Friedman agreed.
"It will do nothing but increase commerce in the community," he said of continuing Amtrak operation. "We're totally supportive of it being here. Every little bit we can get helps."
According to the Montana Department of Transportation, there is no option to Amtrak for many people. In a report on the Empire Builder's significance, the agency wrote, "Amtrak's Empire Builder is an essential transportation service for which there is, by and large in most Montana communities, no reasonable alternative."
The DOT estimated the line's financial benefits as far as money saved, automobile costs avoided, lower accident probability, and reduced highway maintenance as being at least $7.6 million annually.
Montana congressman Denny Rehberg broke ranks with Republican colleagues to help build a bipartisan coalition to persuade wavering House members to support Amtrak.
"This is not about being a Republican or a Democrat," Rehberg said in a press release. "This is about doing what's right for Montana."
He acknowledged Amtrak's high annual cost. However, he said during a speech on the House floor that those expenditures are justified.
"The Empire Builder in Montana has as many as 500,000 people traveling on it. Do we recognize it's subsidized? Yes, we do. But I don't think Congress ever intended it to be run entirely like a business.
"We want good quality service, we want a cheap price, but the problem is there cannot be competition because you can't set up a railroad next to the other. You can't have two railroads competing against each other."
Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Montana's U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns also have spoken out strongly in favor of saving Amtrak.