Budget Proposal Just a Starting Point

More than likely it is a waste of time to discuss the Trump administration proposal to eliminate funding for Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

A president’s budget proposal is just that, a proposal, and no president of either party sees the budget he sent to Congress come out without any substantive changes.

For that matter the House and Senate will have their own ideas about how to spend public money, including how much to allot to the national rail passenger carrier.

Amtrak has been down this road before, many times in fact. Past administrations have proposed zeroing out Amtrak funding only to see Congress time and again appropriate just enough to keep Amtrak’s skeletal national network operating.

If anything is a surprise that the Trump budget would seek to keep any funding for Amtrak.

Amtrak may have survived past budget fights but there have been route casualties along the way. A major restructuring in 1979 killed the only Amtrak service in Columbus and Dayton with the discontinuance of the New York-Kansas City National Limited.

A 1995 restructuring killed the Broadway Limited, which wiped Akron, Youngstown and Fostoria off the Amtrak map.

They later regained service for a short time when a revived Broadway operating as the Three Rivers ran between Chicago and New York.

Another budget fight took Athens and Chillicothe out of the Amtrak network when the Cincinnati-Washington Shenandoah was discontinued in 1981.

For a short time, that 1981 budget fight kicked Cincinnati out of Amtrak, but thanks to the political clout of the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Cardinal returned to its Chicago-New York flight path in early 1982, albeit as a tri-weekly rather than a daily train.

Given the history of Amtrak funding, it would seem likely that some, if not all, of Amtrak’s long-distance trains will survive due to political wrangling.

What could happen is that the fight becomes one of percentages as in what percentage of the Amtrak long-distance network will survive.

If that is the case, Ohio could be in the middle of the fight when some modifications of the long-distance route network are proposed to consolidate “duplicate” service, e.g., the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited between Chicago and Cleveland.

I could see someone proposing reducing the Capitol Limited to a Pittsburgh-Washington service that connects with a combined Lake Shore Limited and Pennsylvanian between Chicago and New York. That would leave Erie, Pennsylvania, off the Amtrak map.

Already, Amtrak and the Michigan Department of Transportation have proposed rerouting the Lake Shore Limited through Michigan, presumably in lieu of an existing Wolverine Service train.

Someone in Washington in an Amtrak office, a Department of Transportation office and/or a congressional office has probably been studying the Amtrak map with an eye toward finding a way to end federal funding of the Lake Shore Limited by making it into a state train.

Michigan and Pennsylvania already fund the legs into Chicago and New York City respectively. Why not tell Ohio that if it wants service it needs to fund the leg between Detroit and Pittsburgh?

And if Pittsburgh-Washington service is to survive then Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia or a combination of those three states will have to fund what would be left of the Capitol Limited.

Some lawmakers like to talk about offering “options.”  They may or may not know or may or may not care that Ohio is unlikely to agree to fund the middle section of the Lake Shore Limited route.

But if Ohio says “no,” well it was given an option and it voted with its wallet.

Buried in the Trump budget proposal is the rational for sharply reducing funding for programs that benefit public transportation: “Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects.”

Look for some in the coming months or years to begin seeking to apply this philosophy to funding for Amtrak long-distance trains.

It would be part of a larger effort to frame the narrative over passenger train funding as a local issue, not a national one even if the trains in question work to form a national transportation network.

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