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View from around the state: Save the Amtrak Empire Builder from the knife

Amtrak’s Empire Builder heads toward Milwaukee’s Intermodal Station on Monday. Wisconsin's refusal of federal money for high-speed rail is causing headaches for Minneapolis' plan. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Amtrak’s Empire Builder heads toward Milwaukee’s Intermodal Station recently. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Although congressional Republicans have said much of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget is “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill, Wisconsin’s congressional delegation should keep a fork handy to spear his proposed passenger-rail cuts.

Amtrak is on Trump’s spit, and he has proposed a $2.4 billion cut in the federal transportation budget, dropping it by 13 percent.

The cuts would be concentrated outside the Northeast corridor of the United States, which would be spared, and would spell the death of the Empire Builder, the 2,200-mile passenger rail line that runs through the heart of the Upper Midwest and provides needed service to thousands of passengers in cities and small towns from Chicago to Seattle and Portland.

Although the Chicago-to-Milwaukee link would still be served by Amtrak’s Hiawatha trains, the westward links would be severed, ending service in dozens of smaller communities like Columbus, Portage, Tomah, Wisconsin Dells and La Crosse, and then up the Mississippi River to St. Paul.

That has raised eyebrows — and hackles — in places along the route where residents fear the consequences of the loss of rail service to their economies and of the connections it provides to larger metro areas and their services. Those same concerns are echoed across the Great Plains — from Minnesota through South Dakota and Montana, where the Empire Builder provides one of the few non-motor vehicle links to urban areas.

Yes, passenger rail service is subsidized — just as most other forms of transportation across the country are in one way or another. The Empire Builder generated $51.7 million in passenger revenue last year and had 454,000 riders, a figure up 3.7 percent from the previous year. That covers almost two-thirds of its cost of operation and it is the most-traveled long distance route in the country.

Although the Northeast Corridor may turn a profit, those pushing for the president’s proposed cuts fail to understand that passenger-rail service in the Midwest and West is more vital to residents of those regions. These essential connections to cities and medical services should be maintained.

Congress, which holds the power of the purse, should consider the likely effects of these proposed cuts beyond the Washington Beltway — and our congressional delegation, along with those in Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana — should be there to make sure the less populous areas of the country don’t get the short end of the budget stick.

— The Journal Times of Racine

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