Ill. officials watching Amtrak's fate

(The following article by Stacey Creasy was posted on the Macomb Journal website on February 10.)

MACOMB, Ill. -- The Executive Director of Midwest High Speed Rail Association claims President George W. Bush is taking the wrong approach toward interstate rail travel.

"We need to expand interstate rail travel, instead of eliminating it," said Rich Harnish, in response to the President's budget which includes no money for Amtrak.

The word of no funding for Amtrak has evoked criticism from officials ranging from Macomb Mayor Mick Wisslead and U.S. Representative Lane Evans to U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, and just about everybody in-between.

Harnish said if Bush gets his way Amtrak will be no more, which would be a serious economic blow to Macomb and dozens of other communities in the state. Amtrak makes numerous stops in Macomb each day.

"Amtrak is the direct line for many of our WIU students from the Chicago area," Wisslead said. "It not only affects us, a number of students at schools like Quincy College also depend on that link. We have local business people who use Amtrak to travel to Chicago for meetings or shopping. They do not have to worry about the drive, parking, anything. They get on the train here and return later that night."

Harnish said even if it is done in "baby steps," interstate rail travel needs to be expanded.

"Adding a morning stop here or an evening stop there, would be well worth the investment to a local economy," Harnish added.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has been a long-time supporter of Amtrak. Local and state officials are hoping Durbin, who is now the Minority Whip in the Senate, will do what he can to change the budget numbers for Amtrak.

In his response to Bush's budget Durbin addressed the Amtrak funding.

"The president's budget does not include any federal funding for Amtrak service in Illinois. Amtrak would need $1.8 billion in FY06 to operate, but the president completely eliminated Amtrak funding in his current budget.," Durbin stated.

"Chicago and 29 other communities in Illinois would lose state-subsidized Amtrak service altogether, leaving the three million passengers a year who rely on Amtrak service in Illinois out of luck and pushing 2,000 Illinoisans out of jobs. The $70 million Illinois has invested in a high-speed passenger line connecting Chicago, Springfield and St. Louis would be wasted."

Gary Johnson, vice-president of student services at WIU, said losing our Amtrak service would be a double-whammy for the university.

"We have students who are in Chicago and that is their only way to the campus," Johnson said. "It has always been a selling point for WIU to say we are on the Amtrak rail line. We also have staff that would leave in the morning for Chicago, attend a meeting and be back that night. This way they would drive four hours, attend a meeting for four to five hours, stay over and come back. It would be much more costly. That's just the beginning of what impact it would have on us."

Johnson said what amazes him is the government spends much more money subsidizing airports and highways than rail services.

"That has never made any sense to me," he added. "It cost so much less to subsidize rail travel."

Johnson, the WIU campus as well as city officials will closely watch how the Amtrak funding picture unfolds as the debate over the budget begins.

Friday, February 11, 2005

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