Happening Now

Two More States Take Aim At Passenger Rail Funding

January 22, 2019

Advocacy is perpetual, but especially so in Indiana and West Virginia

Abe Zumwalt

Writing about Washington State’s I-976 was gut-wrenching. Should voters in the Evergreen state push the measure forward, the region would stand to lose much of its transit system, and its connections to Oregon as well as British Columbia via Amtrak Cascades service. This will be the seventh time the state has dealt with this particular threat – but Washington certainly isn’t the only place where battles have to be fought again. Passenger rail funding at the state level is vulnerable across the country.

This very organization boosted a local campaign to save Indiana’s Hoosier State when it was on the chopping block back in 2013. So it is again today, after having not made the cut into the Governor’s budget for the year. The argument for the train is clear enough for this threat to be beaten back: it’s odd four-day-per-week schedule compliments the Cardinal’s three-day-per-week shuffle along the same route; it offers Amtrak a handy pipeline for its equipment between Chicago and its shops at Beech Grove with a substantial employment base for the state; and as so many passenger trains are, it has proven to be an ‘investment rather than a subsidy’ with demonstrated local support.

That said, the Hoosier State in no way represents what modern passenger rail should be. A newspaper in Indianapolis had a prescient conclusion for the situation in its article about the threat:

Indiana needs to improve the Hoosier State to keep it from being in what [Indiana Passenger Rail Alliance Board Member and Rail Passengers’ Member Doug] Yerkeson called a “perpetual purgatory.”

“Our hope was that the state of Indiana would get on board like some of the other Midwestern states like Illinois and Michigan and Wisconsin and make some capital investments.”

That includes improving the rails themselves so the train can run at up to 110 miles per hour, slashing the currently 5-hour long trip to Chicago, and increasing the frequency of the trips to twice a day so it truly becomes a commuter option. That, they said, would improve the ridership numbers the state points to as one reason for killing the Hoosier State: 27,876 passengers in fiscal 2018, down from 29,504 the previous year.

But in a year when lawmakers are scrambling to find dollars for priorities such as education, they’ll settle for just keeping the Hoosier State on track.

“They’ll settle” for the losing status quo. Such complacency is also evident closer to the Nation’s Capital. The Maryland Transit Agency’s MARC Brunswick Line ventures all the way from Washington D.C. to West Virginia… for now. West Virginia continually has had trouble finding money in the budget to pay for its portion of the service, and Governor Hogan of Maryland has indicated more than once that he won’t pick up their tab. It’s a complicated situation: in previous service cuts, the the last stop before crossing the state line, tiny Brunswick, Maryland was overwhelmed with West Virginia drivers. The two states don’t operate in a vacuum, but they fund their interlining services as if they do. In an era when the state of Maryland is considering a gigantic investment in the parallel I-270 corridor, local efforts have been urging state lawmakers to consider a proportional investment in the state’s commuter rail program.

Strapped state budgets are a real problem for intercity passenger rail service, as the impetus to grow has been placed at the state level – and since 2008, such incremental growth relies on state coffers by law. We’ve seen now that across three states with passenger trains that this may not be politically sustainable. Overlay that with overall national transportation funding that heavily relies on a diminishing gas tax, and a heavy bias towards roads over all other investments, and a larger problem emerges. This quickly become a problem of national policy, which happens to be part of why this Association is here.

The surface transportation reauthorization in 2020 is our next chance to fix some of these underlying issues, an opportunity the Association will be seizing this spring. Join us, if you can – and if you can’t, look for the Association's upcoming advocacy campaigns surrounding this opportunity.