TRANSIT: Oregon DOT fears lack of dollars will kill Amtrak service

Rail service between Portland and Eugene is thought to be in jeopardy

Transportation Management News March 31, 2015
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The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has expressed concern that it may not have the money to continue providing Amtrak rail service between Portland and Eugene, according to budget discussions in the state capitol.
 
Gov. John Kitzhaber had earmarked $10.4 million to keep what is known as the “Cascades” route operating, despite the Fed’s phasing out funding for routes shorter than 750 miles. Despite this gesture, ODOT assistant director Travis Brouwer said, in light of a proposed legislative budget that would provide only $5 million for passenger rail, that the agency would very likely be unable to keep the Cascades route operating; it is a “distinct possibility” the route will have to close.
 
The Cascades route runs from Eugene to British Columbia, bearing two daily round trips between Eugene and Portland and between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., respectively, and four daily round trips between Portland and Seattle. As the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to take on full responsibility for short routes, the state must begin paying for the Cascades route in the 2015-17 biennium, which will require, it is estimated, $28.1 million.
 
At present, more than half of that amount is covered. Approximately $6.6 million will come from the state’s custom license plate fees, a further $4.1 million from the state Transportation Operating Fund, comprised of unclaimed refunds for gas taxes assessed on off-road vehicles, and one-time federal funds will cover $6.9 million, for a total of $17.6 million. The $10.4 million allotted in Kitzhaber's budget would bring the total to $28 million. Unfortunatelt, passenger rail is one of the few public transit sources where ticket prices don’t cover the cost of operations, Brouwer said.
 
“Oregon’s lack of dedicated, sustainable funding for rail investments is the number one challenge facing a viable rail system for both passenger and freight in Oregon. Without such funding, Oregon does not have revenue available for the required match for federal or private funds to improve rail service, nor the substantial revenue to maintain current infrastructure or operate services already in place,” the budget report said.
 
In an email from ODOT government relations manager Leah Craft to Amanda Hess, chief adviser to Sen. Chip Shields, the agency made plain what would happen if ODOT does not receive that $10 million: “ODOT would need to give Amtrak 90-day notice to stop service but this would not occur until the 2015 session has been completed. Should the legislature adjourn without funding passenger rail, ODOT would proceed with stopping service but not until that point,” Craft wrote.
 
If this were to happen, Brouwer said, an end to the Cascades route would likely be permanent. ‘It would likely be very difficult to ever get it back,” he said.
 
Further discussions on the issue in legislature are imminent.

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