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Saving the Empire Builder

| March 24, 2005 11:00 PM

By ROGER MORRIS Western News Publisher

A coalition of community and state leaders is planning three meetings in three cities across northern Montana to discuss strategy for saving the Empire Builder, Amtrak's long-distance train service across Big Sky.

The purpose of the meetings is to devise a way to make a political and economic statement on the importance of the long-distance Amtrak service to the rural West.

During a teleconference Tuesday afternoon, which included Lincoln County Commissioners Rita Windom and John Konzen and Libby Mayor Tony Berget, it was decided to schedule the meetings in Whitefish, Havre and Glasgow during the congressional recess for Memorial Day. The meetings will be scheduled between May 30 and June 3 to enable U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Conrad Burns and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg to attend.

The meetings are in response to President George Bush's proposed budget for Amtrak, which includes $366 million for primarily commuter train service in the Northeast corridor. Amtrak received $1.2 billion from the federal government for fiscal year 2004-2005.

Last week, the Senate voted 52-46 to not increase the Amtrak subsidy to $1.5 billion.

Presently there are 14 long distance trains serving the remainder of the country - outside of the Northeast corridor.

"Amtrak is our only public transportation," Windom told Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, who organized the teleconference that included

representatives from communities across the northern tier of the state served by Amtrak.

"We lost our mills and that infrastructure has gone away and is not coming back," Windom said following comments that losing the passenger railroad service would be permanent. "We'll ride the train anywhere to participate in this meeting."

Organizers are encouraging meeting participants to ride the train to the meetings, and possibly ride trains back to Washington, D.C., to lobby for funding.

A Billings man, representing a group seeking Amtrak service across the southern portion of the state, said in the current $1.2 billion Amtrak budget, only $300 million was designated for the long distance trains.

"It would be very expensive to shut down the long-distance trains," he said.

Gov. Schweitzer noted that 57 railroad jobs in Montana with a total payroll of $2.3 million are at stake.

"If we had a plant closing in Montana that employed 57 employees, we'd be doing everything we could to keep them from closing," Schweitzer said.

Larry Vielleux, owner of the Izaak Walton Inn at Essex, pointed out that the railroad and the lodge are major Montana attractions year-round bringing widespread economic benefits.

Tony Priete, state director of commerce, said the impacts to communities along the Hi Line could be "devastating." Many small businesses depend on the Empire Builder for express packages to and from Montana.

A 2003 state study said that Amtrak spends $33.7 to $4.3 million annually purchasing services within the state. In addition, the railroad service provides a $7.6 million savings to state residents who use the service. Also, nonresident passengers passing through Montana on the Empire Builder are estimated to spend $135,000 annually, the study said.

"There are payrolls, there are jobs, there are families that will be affected," said Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger. "We have to see it grow and we have to provide the vehicle to see it grow."

Bohlinger said the federal government needs to be challenged to "provide the type of leadership that they have in the automotive industry or the aviation industry."

Bohlinger pledged the governor's office would take the lead in efforts to save the rail service.