Durbin says Amtrak 'the present and the future'; vows to oppose calls to reduce funding

By:  Doug Wilson
Quincy Herald-Whig

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin called Amtrak “a solid success” Thursday and pledged to oppose a U.S. House proposal that would eliminate Quincy-to-Chicago train service, as well as other state-subsidized routes across the nation.

“Amtrak is the present and the future,” Durbin said during a roundtable discussion at Quincy University.

Durbin said Amtrak is poised to set a national record with 30 million passengers this year. The trains along the Quincy-to-Chicago corridor are expected to exceed 234,000 passengers, with about 50,000 boarding or arriving in Quincy.

The funding bill for the 2012 budget year proposed by the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee would cut 60 percent from Amtrak’s operating budget and ban any federal funds for routes that are subsidized by states. Illinois provides $28 million a year to partner with Amtrak on rail service along the Quincy-to-Chicago, Carbondale-to-Chicago and St. Louis-to-Chicago routes.

Participants in Thursday’s roundtable roundly condemned the Amtrak funding cuts.

Quincy Mayor John Spring said eliminating the service makes no sense after communities along the Quincy-to-Chicago corridor proved they would support Amtrak when a second daily round trip was added in 2006.

“Our passenger numbers continue to grow every year,” Spring said.

Amtrak Board Chairman Tom Carper, a former mayor of Macomb, said the House proposal “is not a way to treat partners,” referring to the 15 states that subsidize Amtrak routes. In addition, Congress ordered Amtrak to renegotiate funding amounts on the routes now threatened with abandonment.

“We’ve been negotiating with those partners for 18 months and this wipes that off the books,” Carper said.

Thomas A. Oakley of the Tri-State Development Summit Steering Committee said proposals in Congress would hit more than Amtrak. The Surface Transportation Act that funds highway and bridge projects nationwide would be cut by $70 billion a year, or 30 percent.

“You eliminate 40,000 (construction jobs) for each $1 billion you cut from the highway bill,” said Oakley.

Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act in 2007 but has not funded it. The legislation would double the size of lock chambers at seven sites along the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers. That will be one of the hot topics at the Tri-State Summit to be held in Quincy next week, Oakley said.

“Transportation is the lifeblood of this country,” Oakley said.

Amy Looten of the Quincy Area Chamber of Commerce said the business community wants Amtrak, good highways and an airport. She suggested that the budget ax needs to fall on entitlements, which represent a much larger portion of the budget.

Quincy University President Bob Gervasi said Amtrak spending over the past 40 years totaled $36 billion, while $421 billion has been spent on air travel and more than $1 trillion on highways. Transportation as a whole represents only 3 percent of the federal budget, he said.

“The total Amtrak budget request was $2.2 billion. The House Appropriations Subcommittee is proposing $1.1 billion. In contrast, total military spending in fiscal 2011 was $726 billion,” Gervasi said.

While he acknowledged that everyone should support a strong national defense, Gervasi said the cuts to transportation programs would be shortsighted.

Durbin said the House subcommittee proposal has not yet been considered by the full House. A Senate funding plan would sustain passenger rail. If both proposals get sent to the other chamber, the final funding plan will have to be worked out by a conference committee. “We’ll have to see what happens in the next few weeks,” Durbin said.