Amtrak Cuts would hurt local, national interests

Bloomington Pantagraph

Sen. Dick Durbin chose the right place to talk about the impact of drastically cutting funding for Amtrak, when he spoke in Normal.

Chicago is the only place in the state with an Amtrak station busier than Normal.

Curtailing Amtrak service here would be a tremendous blow to the community, affecting not only those who ride the train but the economy as a whole.

In 2010, 209,629 people got on or off the train in Normal, up from 192,687 the previous year. The station in Champaign-Urbana is a distant third with 142,406 last year.

The only places in the Midwest with more passenger traffic are Chicago at nearly 3.3 million, Milwaukee at 588,617 and St. Louis at 321,629.

Dumping all those people into cars — or even buses — will do little to address traffic congestion or the nation’s reliance on foreign oil.

But under a bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives, funding would be cut off for state-supported corridor trains, such as those running between St. Louis and Chicago. The Lincoln Service route represents eight of the 10 trains that serve Normal.

Furthermore, the proposed cuts to Amtrak’s overall budget wouldn’t provide enough money to run Amtrak’s current system, jeopardizing long-haul routes, according to Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. That would take out the Texas Eagle, which runs one train both directions daily through Normal, he said.

No one disagrees that the federal government needs to get spending under control — but not by dumping expenses on already cash-strapped states and not by gutting a key element of the nation’s transportation system.

Legislation approved in 2008 called for an orderly transition to states taking greater responsibility for financing intercity train service. But cutting off all funding will create more chaos, than cost-savings.

Obviously, college students — and people visiting them — are big users of the trains that serve Normal. But it’s also used for business and leisure travel to St. Louis and Chicago. Rail service is likely to be an integral part of marketing Illinois State University’s corporate MBA program to Chicago business executives — and it makes travel between Chicago and Normal easier for professors and university officials.

Easy access to rail transportation also can be important to attracting meetings, conferences and conventions to the Twin Cities, especially uptown Normal with its proximity to the train station.

Combine the local, state and federal investment in the new Uptown Station and the shortsightedness of a big Amtrak cutback is even more clear, especially as it related to Bloomington-Normal.