The Oregon Department of Transportation may not have enough money next year to continue providing Amtrak rail service between Portland and Eugene, according to budget discussions in the Oregon Capitol.
Gov. John Kitzhaber had set aside $10.4 million to keep the “Cascades” route operating, even as the federal government phases out its funding for routes shorter than 750 miles.
However, the legislature’s proposed budget includes just $5 million for passenger rail.
ODOT Assistant Director Travis Brouwer said it would very likely not be enough to keep the Cascades route operating, and it was a “distinct possibility” it would have to close.
The Cascades route runs from Eugene to British Columbia, and it includes two daily round trips between Eugene and Portland and between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., and four daily round trips between Portland and Seattle.
The federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 required states to eventually take on full responsibility for shorter routes, like Cascades, while the U.S. government continues to pay for longer ones.
Oregon must begin paying for Cascades in the 2015-17 biennium, and it needs $28.1 million to cover the cost of Oregon train service, according to ODOT’s budget report.
More than half of that is covered. About $6.6 million will come from Oregon’s custom license plate fees. Another $4.1 million will come from the state Transportation Operating Fund, which is unclaimed refunds for gas taxes assessed on off-road vehicles. Finally, one-time federal funds will cover $6.9 million, for a total of $17.6 million.
The $10.4 million allotted in Kitzhaber’s budget would bring the total to $28 million, and that is what ODOT is asking for. The money pays for rail and train maintenance, as well as overhead costs, Brouwer said. Passenger rail is one of the few public transit sources where ticket prices don’t cover the cost of operations, he said.
Without that money, the state does not believe it can keep the trains running.
“Oregon’s lack of dedicated, sustainable funding for rail investments is the number one challenge facing a viable rail system for both passenger and freight in Oregon. Without such funding, Oregon does not have revenue available for the required match for federal or private funds to improve rail service, nor the substantial revenue to maintain current infrastructure or operate services already in place,” the budget report said.
ODOT government relations manager Leah Craft wrote an email on Thursday to Amanda Hess, chief adviser to Sen. Chip Shields, that outlined what would happen if ODOT does not receive $10 million.
“ODOT would need to give Amtrak 90-day notice to stop service but this would not occur until the 2015 session has been completed. Should the legislature adjourn without funding passenger rail, ODOT would proceed with stopping service but not until that point,” Craft wrote.
Already, advocates of train travel are concerned.
The Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates is using its website to encourage enthusiasts to contact the legislature and push for full funding. It has also put out fliers in train stations, including Salem.
“In 2014 Oregon purchased two wonderful new Talgo trains so our state could meet the growing public demand for passenger rail. Now the service is threatened, and those new trains would go on the auction block,” the wesbite says. “Tell your lawmakers in Salem: ‘Don’t let it happen.'”
Brouwer said an end to the Cascades route would likely be permanent.
“It would likely be very difficult to ever get it back,” he said.
The budget Subcommittee on Transportation and Economic Development is meeting to discuss ODOT’s budget on Monday at 3 p.m. in Hearing Room F of the Oregon Capitol, and money for passenger rail will be one of the issues up for discussion.
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