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Trump to ax Amtrak funding, Alpine station at risk

April 13th, 2017 under Top Stories

By NICK WINCHESTER
nick@bigbendnow.com

ALPINE — “Look to your right and you’ll see snow on the ground,” the Amtrak announcer joked as the train pulled into Alpine station recently, riffing on the name of the Brewster County seat. Passengers alight on the platform while those staying on the train, heading east, take the opportunity to smoke or stretch cramped limbs.

The station at Alpine is clean and with the recent refurbishments to the station, it’s hard to imagine that it could soon see an end to its service, but a recent budget proposal from the Trump administration may make this a very real scenario.

The proposal from the White House will see $2.4 billion —or 13 percent — cut from transportation spending, putting long distance routes that reach this region at risk. The Sunset Limited, which connects Los Angeles to New Orleans three times a week, runs tight to America’s southern border, and passes through Marfa before stopping in Alpine. The Limited’s Austin connection, the Texas Eagle, which heads north to Chicago, may also get the cut.

During the 2016 fiscal year, 4,943 passengers boarded or alighted at Alpine’s Amtrak Station, down just 26 passengers on the previous year.

Local reaction was mixed to Trump’s budget ax.

Retired Union Pacific engineer Steve Wilcox of Marfa told the Big Bend Sentinel that the Amtrak needs to stay. He said, “many can’t afford to fly, and the buses are too crowded.”

He added, “The Amtrak is great for senior citizens because their needs are met by services on the train. If they need a meal brought to their cabin, a porter will do that for them.”

Wilcox referred to the recent case of United Airlines forcibly removing a passenger due to overbooked seats. He said that this would never occur on the Amtrak as they always have extra seats for this purpose.

“The passenger service has been here for 200 years and rail travel is a backup,” Wilcox said. “When snow causes airlines in the east to halt service, the Amtrak is still running. When an ash cloud from Italy is keeping planes on the runway in Chicago, the Amtrak is still running.”

Tonya Tiday, Tourism Director at Alpine Chamber of Commerce, noted that most tourists arrive via rental car after landing at either El Paso or Odessa-Midland airports. Those arriving by Amtrak make up around a tenth of Alpine’s visitors.

“If they do cut Amtrak across the nation, the effect on a smaller town, like Alpine, wouldn’t be that big of a deal,” she said.

The area’s congressman, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd doesn’t exactly hold a good track record on protecting the Amtrak service in West Texas, having supported an amendment to H.R. 749 in March 2015 that would prohibit funding for specific Amtrak’s routes with the highest losses.

A spokesperson for Congressman Hurd, Rachel Holland, told the Sentinel that the congressman made his decision because in 2014 the Sunset Limited cost taxpayers $41.9 million, approximately $405.67 per passenger per journey. “He voted to eliminate taxpayer funding for the Sunset Limited line in order to send a message to Amtrak: Amtrak needs to focus on serious solutions that ensure financial stability and the protection of this line for future generations of West Texans – or it’s going to go away regardless of how the Congressman votes.”

Of the recent budget proposals, Hurd’s spokesperson said, “when a new transportation appropriations bill is drafted and comes before the House for a vote, you can count on Congressman Hurd to once again review the bill in depth and consider all relevant facts before deciding what he feels best for the constituents in his district.”

Said National Association of Railroad Passengers President Jim Mathews: “It’s ironic that President Trump’s first budget proposal undermines the very communities whose economic hardship and sense of isolation from the rest of the country helped propel him into office,”

“These working-class communities—many of them located in the Midwest and the South—were tired of being treated like ‘flyover country,’” Mathews said. “But by proposing the elimination of Amtrak’s long distance trains, the Trump Administration does them one worse, cutting a vital service that connects these small-town economies to the rest of the U.S. These hard working, small town Americans don’t have airports or Uber to turn to; they depend on these trains.”

Amtrak President & CEO Wick Moorman said in a statement sent to the Big Bend Sentinel on the morning of the announcement: “Today’s budget proposal to eliminate funding for Amtrak’s long distance service could impact many of the 500 communities we serve. Amtrak operates 15 long-distance trains across the nation and these routes offer the only Amtrak service in 23 of the 46 states we serve. These trains connect our major regions, provide vital transportation to residents in rural communities and generate connecting passengers and revenue for our Northeast Corridor and State-Supported services.  Amtrak is very focused on running efficiently – we covered 94 percent of our total network operating costs through ticket sales and other revenues in FY16 – but these services all require Federal investment.

“As the budget process progresses, we look forward to working with President Trump, Secretary Chao, and Congress to ensure they understand the value of Amtrak’s long distance trains and what these proposed cuts would mean to this important part of the nation’s transportation system,” Moorman added.

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