Rauner budget threatens some Amtrak service in Illinois, association says

From Illinois Business Journal news services

CHICAGO – Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed cuts to Amtrak would lead to significant service reductions across the state, potentially leaving some cities with no Amtrak service at all, a rail association says.

Rauner’s FY16 budget includes a 40 percent cut in state funding for Amtrak.

According to testimony at the House Appropriations Public Safety Committee hearing in Springfield, under the “worst-case scenario,” the cuts would result in the cancellation of Southern Illinois’ two state-funded daily trains: the Illini and the Saluki. In this case, only one, federally-funded train would serve the Chicago-Carbondale route each day.

In Western Illinois, the Carl Sandburg and the Illinois Zephyr could be cut as well. Ending these services would mean no more Amtrak in Quincy and Macomb, and reduced frequencies along the rest of the route.

amtrakcutsAccording to Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Richard Harnish, “These cuts would be devastating and are unacceptable. Amtrak ridership has increased by a third in the past seven years, and killing this well-used transportation choice would isolate millions of Illinois residents.”

The governor’s proposed cuts to Amtrak are designed to bring funding back to 2013 levels of $26 million – from $42 million today. In 2013, Illinois had to increase its spending on Amtrak to comply with a new federal law, which placed more of the burden for shorter Amtrak routes on the states.

Because of the federal law, returning to 2013 funding levels would mean that Amtrak would not have enough funding to keep service at the current level.

An agreement with the federal government requires that the Chicago-St. Louis route, which includes the stops in Carlinville and Alton, must maintain the same level of service – or the state must repay over $1 billion it received in capital funding to upgrade the line. Because of that, other routes would bear the brunt of the cuts, Harnish said.

Given that Amtrak cannot afford to maintain service at current levels, with 40 percent less funding from the state, it is likely that the Illini, Saluki, Carl Sandburg and Illinois Zephyr could be cut, he said.

Additionally, removing operational funding for Illinois’ state-supported Amtrak services would make it very difficult to reinstate service in the future. If the services were discontinued, Amtrak would forfeit the slots it currently uses on the freight-owned tracks.

If the state decided to reinstate service, there is no guarantee the host railroads would allow those trains to return to the tracks. The host railroads could also charge the state hundreds of millions of dollars in capital investments to allow the trains to return, he said.

“It is critical people speak up now to save the trains they depend on while the General Assembly considers these cuts,” Harnish said.

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