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Texas Eagle loss would nix eastward plans

By Glenn Evans
March 25, 2017 at 11:57 p.m.

The Texas Eagle rolls into town during the 40th anniversary celebration in 2014 at the Amtrak Station in Longview.

A planned east-west train route allowing Longview residents to ride to New York and beyond is imperiled under a federal budget proposal that would eliminate funding for long-haul Amtrak routes, including the Texas Eagle.

The so-called Ark-La-Tex Corridor is envisioned by planners in three states to link Dallas/Fort Worth with Atlanta, picking up riders from New Orleans at Meridian, Mississippi, where it would link with Amtrak's Crescent route.

Once in Atlanta, the door would open for Amtrak's entire Northeast Corridor, including New York, Boston and Montreal, Canada.

"We haven't had an east-west connection since 1967," said Richard Anderson, chairman of the Ark-La-Tex Corridor Council. "This will probably go down the tube without the Texas Eagle."

On March 16, President Donald Trump submitted his first budget. In it, he cut $2.4 billion from transportation spending, including the elimination of all 15 of Amtrak's long-haul routes — including the Texas Eagle through Longview.

Anderson, also a former Harrison County judge and state senator, said the 815-mile line that's envisioned also would enhance Amtrak's Crescent route.

"The beauty of the Meridian route is the Crescent route coming up from New Orleans joins it there," he said. "So, we've got another half million people that combine into this. ... This is a national network. It all feeds in — there's synergy there."

A Feb. 17 letter from the Corridor Council to the governors of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi says, "the bright young minds of tomorrow's workforce" and the growing retiree population are looking for travel options.

It's a nice image: Texans avoiding Interstate 20 traffic and out-of-state tourists and job-seekers riding the rails into the Lone Star State.

It's an image that shatters if the Eagle is shot down to save the federal subsidy on the Chicago-to-San Antonio route, which was $227 million in fiscal year 2016. That amount represented most of the gap between the Texas Eagle's $3.2 billion revenue that year and its operating costs.

So, why couldn't Amtrak just dig in its seat cushions to make up the federal subsidy?

In response to that question, Amtrak national spokesman Marc Magliari quoted Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman's public statement on the cuts.

"(He said) the federal support is still required," the spokesman said. "That's our best judgment of the situation."

Magliari said all transportation modes are subsidized by tax dollars — airlines, water navigation through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, automobiles and commercial trucking. So is every rail line in Europe and Asia.

"User fees do not pay for the highways," he said. "Every form of transportation in this country receives some sort of federal support. You can raise ticket prices, but you drive off business if you raise ticket prices too high."

Pressed in an email to expand on why Amtrak cannot find the revenue necessary to break even, Magliari replied he would check "with headquarters," but did not reply after that.

Longview Councilwoman Kasha Williams, whose District 3 includes the Amtrak station off Mobberly Avenue, said this is not the time to remove transportation options.

"The entire funding mechanism that's proposed right now — or the lack thereof — it should be concerning to all of us," said Williams, who also is on the three-state Corridor Council with Anderson. "That (east-west route) is an additional enhancement and will be an even larger economic driver for the city of Longview and other communities that provide passenger rail."

The Corridor Council has launched a capacity study to determine if tracks already along the I-20 right of way, owned by the Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern lines, could accommodate passenger rail. That mode travels faster than freight, and the passenger line to Atlanta is projected to run at 80 mph.

Funded by $550,000 remaining from $740,000 in federal funds secured in 2007 by then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the capacity study's goal is to identify any large-dollar projects that might be needed for the passenger rail line.

"The Eagle is great," said Anderson. "And we've got to have it. If we get this I-20 (Ark-La-Tex) Corridor Council, that's a two-fer."

Williams was not willing to say the Eagle's demise is locked in.

"I'm not going to say that we're going to lose the Eagle," the councilwoman said, noting that dual benefit on the horizon if a healthy Texas Eagle can serve as a launch pad for the new line. "That change benefits everyone, especially as we seek to provide all travel options. And I think it's something that all citizens should consider."

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