Legislators face decisions on Amtrak’s future

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(Host) In the next few weeks, lawmakers will need to make some critical decisions concerning the future of Amtrak’s rail passenger service Vermont. It’s likely that Amtrak is going to seek a larger state subsidy in the next fiscal year and that’s a request that could be difficult for the Legislature to meet.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) In the next few weeks there’s going to be a major debate in Congress over the future of federal funding for Amtrak and the outcome of this debate could have an enormous impact on passenger rail service in Vermont. Congressional supporters of Amtrak are seeking a $1.2 billion federal subsidy for the next fiscal year. However, there are indications that Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate want to trim this request back by several hundred million dollars. If this happens, Amtrak is going to ask individual states to pay more for their rail service.

Last session, the Legislature allocated $2 million as a subsidy for Amtrak for the current fiscal year. But Amtrak decided the money would only cover nine months and it’s seeking an additional $670,000 to extend service from April through June. This new appropriation will have to be approved by the General Assembly this winter.

Charlie Miller, who’s the director of Vermont’s Rail Division, says it’s very difficult for the state to negotiate with Amtrak for service beyond June because Amtrak’s financial future is so uncertain:

(Miller) “Pretty much everything is on the table with Amtrak being in the financial straits that they’re in. I guess the issue is whether or not even Amtrak will be here after March or April when they could possibly run out of money if they’re not funded properly.”

(Kinzel) Senate Transportation Chairman Dick Mazza says the state cannot afford a major increase in its Amtrak subsidy and Mazza is looking for some passenger rail alternatives to Amtrak.

(Mazza) “I’m still puzzled to think that if we pay more, and less service is provided, ridership will go down and we’ll be faced with more subsidies. So if I was convinced that service would be better and increase ridership, then it has the possibility of pay more subsidy. But I’m not convinced that’s going to happen.”

(Kinzel) The Vermont Transportation Authority is expected to release a report later this month that will examine various options that could be available to the state in the event that negotiations with Amtrak are not successful.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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