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Proposed Cuts to Montana’s Empire Builder Passenger Rail Service Unwise

Paul Tuss
Reliable, cost-effective public transportation for rural America is an important economic building block for our communities and often a vital service for our residents.  But unlike our urban counterparts, rural public transportation options are often elusive, and seem to get caught in the political crosshairs of the federal government.  Whether it’s funding for transit systems, Essential Air Service or Amtrak, public transportation in rural America often fights for the crumbs that are left after metropolitan and urban areas are funded.

 

Recently, a decision was made in Washington, D.C., to cut Amtrak service on most of its long-distance lines, including the Empire Builder, which serves Montana and has stops on the Hi-Line, including Malta, Havre and Cut Bank, among others. The reduction from daily service to three times a week will have a serious and detrimental impact on our state, both economically and from a transportation perspective. Montanans use Amtrak every day for a variety of reasons, including medical appointments, job opportunities and family visits.  Importantly, Amtrak provides a real lifeline to families who may not have access to reliable transportation, are on a fixed income or are elderly and simply can’t drive any longer. In short, this cut in service will adversely impact the most vulnerable in our communities.

 

Ironically, this decision comes at a time when ridership on the Empire Builder is on an uptick. In fiscal year 2019, 433,372 people rode the Empire Builder, which is more than the previous year.  The Empire Builder also has more ridership than any other long-distance line in Amtrak’s system.

 

This latest blow comes on the heels of Amtrak’s earlier decision to eliminate ticket agents and attendants at train stations in Havre and Shelby, which adversely impacts senior citizens, the handicapped and young travelers the most.

 

Rather than hamstring America’s passenger rail system and dismantle it piece-by-piece, we should commit as a nation to a more robust system and assure that our rural and frontier communities don’t get left behind in favor of investment in urban and metropolitan areas.

 

Amtrak has served Montana and our residents well over many decades.  Join with me in encouraging our congressional delegation to properly fund Amtrak and to resist the current cuts to this important part of our transportation infrastructure.

 

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Paul Tuss is executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., a federally recognized Economic Development District serving the economic and community development needs of northern Montana. Tuss is past president of the Montana Economic Developers Association and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Development Organizations.

 

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