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Legislators keep punching Amtrak's ticket -- for now

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Without schedule changes, state subsidies could get a rough ride


TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Lawmakers will continue to subsidize Amtrak's service in Oregon, but some in the Legislature think train schedules should change to accommodate commuters.Oregon will continue to foot an increased bill for state-subsidized passenger rail service between Portland and Eugene.

But the reprieve for Amtrak, which operates the service that extends to Seattle and beyond, may last just two more years.

A key lawmaker said that officials and passenger-rail advocates have until then to come up with ways to counter declining ridership, increasing costs, and a shift from federal subsidies to the two states on the Cascades Corridor.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said a projected $120-per-seat subsidy from Oregon is not what she has in mind.

“They need a plan,” said Johnson, who is the Senate co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s joint budget subcommittee on transportation and economic development. “They have a schedule that does not work for people. We cannot keep up the level of subsidization we are providing per ticket.”

Johnson and state rail planners have complained that a switch in Amtrak southbound service from Portland on Jan. 6, 2014, has resulted in plummeting ridership. The start time was switched from 9:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. (On weekends and some holidays, the train leaves at 8:30 a.m.)

During 2014, the morning train carried just 5,529 passengers, compared with 45,858 for the evening run, which leaves Portland at 6 p.m.

Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, spoke for a number of Republicans who want to drop all proposed state support in the two-year budget cycle that starts July 1. That support amounts to $28 million from several sources, including $10.4 million proposed from the tax-supported general fund.

“We know that (Amtrak) service contract on that train is going to increase in cost,” Whitsett said. “We know that the federal subsidy for that train is going to be reduced. So the only answer is to increase ridership — which is not happening — or to increase the subsidy for the train.

“It’s time to pull the plug on the train. It’s time to realize this is a lost venture of the state and stop wasting Oregonians’ money on that train.”

Given the 2014 total of 535,000 recorded passenger on-offs at the five Oregon stations in question — Portland, Oregon City, Salem, Albany and Eugene — the $28 million in proposed state support translates into about $52 per passenger for a one-way trip. The calculation assumes an equal cost for each seat.

The state-subsidized service is in addition to the Coast Starlight, Amtrak’s once-a-day service between Seattle and Los Angeles, which stops in Klamath Falls and Chemult — both in Whitsett’s district — and Eugene, Albany, Salem and Portland.

The Coast Starlight, one of Amtrak’s national routes, is not state-subsidized.

Two decades of service

Along the 467-mile Cascades Corridor, 300 track miles are in Washington, 134 miles in Oregon, and the rest in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

Overall ridership has grown from the mid-1990s, when Oregon began the first of what are now two daily rail runs between Portland and Eugene, and Washington followed with an extension of its Seattle-Portland service to Vancouver, British Columbia.

There are now four daily runs between Portland and Seattle.

Oregon got $38.4 million in federal economic stimulus funds to buy two new trains in 2009. They went into service in 2013.

Its previous trains were leased from Washington state, which wanted them back in anticipation of adding two more daily runs between Seattle and Portland starting next year.

In 1993, annual ridership in the corridor was 94,000; in 2011, it peaked at 848,000. But it declined to 781,000 in 2014, according to data provided by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

In Oregon, according to data furnished by the transportation agencies in both states, Portland recorded 406,000 passenger on-offs from the Cascades service in 2014, down from 459,743 between July 2012 and June 2013. Salem recorded about 40,000 on-offs in 2014, down from 47,724 in 2012-13.

For comparison, Portland recorded 117,545 passenger on-offs from the Coast Starlight in 2012-13; Salem, 22,666. Amtrak did not make available more recent data to the Oregon agency.

“The success of the Cascade Rail System really will affect any other part of the system, so it’s kind of an eco-transportation system,” said David Arnold of La Grande, a rail consultant and president of the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates, in a March 30 legislative hearing.

While Seattle and Portland ranked 1-2 in passenger on-offs and ticket revenue in 2014, Eugene ranked sixth in both; Salem, ninth and 10th; Albany, 16th and 14th, and Oregon City, 18th and 17th. Except for Vancouver, British Columbia, all the other stations are in Washington state.

In the 2006 federal budget year, which ran from Oct. 1, 2005, to Sept. 30, 2006, Amtrak Cascades ticket revenue accounted for $12.4 million; costs, $25.6 million. In the 2014 federal budget year, ticket revenue was $29.8 million; costs, $51.4 million.

The Washington State Department of Transportation estimates that its rail ticket income accounts for a recent annual average of 59.5 percent, and 58.1 percent in the 2014 federal budget cycle.

There is no comparable figure from Oregon, but Washington collected far more of the almost $30 million in ticket income during 2014. Oregon’s share was around $5 million.

Rail’s future

As a result of a 2008 federal law, Amtrak phased out its own subsidies for rail corridors of less than 750 miles, forcing Oregon and Washington to pick up the entire operating costs starting in 2013.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee recently signed his state’s two-year transportation budget, which is separate from the rest of state spending caught up in a dispute.

Oregon used to rely on a general-fund subsidy of its Amtrak Cascades operating costs until about a decade ago, when lawmakers chose to use the proceeds from personalized vehicle license plates.

The subsidy, then and now, has been the object of a political tug-of-war between Democrats favoring the service and Republicans opposed to it.

The 2015-17 budget submitted by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber to lawmakers back on Dec. 1 proposed $10.4 million from the general fund, plus $6.6 million from personalized license plates, $6.9 million in one-time federal transportation funds, and $4.1 million from the transportation operating fund, which consists of unclaimed refunds from fuel for all-terrain vehicles.

The gap is projected to grow for the 2017-19 budget cycle.

The Legislature’s chief budget writers proposed only $5 million from the general fund back on Jan. 14. But Johnson, the budget subcommittee co-chairwoman, said she’s worked out the details to keep the service going.

Bob Melbo, ODOT rail planner, said work is continuing on an environmental impact statement that envisions upgrades and alternate rail routes for the Portland-Eugene corridor. The statement is required as a step for Oregon to qualify for federal grants that may become available in the future for rail system improvements.

Although lawmakers received a report on how money might be raised for future rail work, they have not acted on any recommendations.

Under the 2009 federal economic stimulus act, which made available $8 billion for rail projects, Washington state got an initial $590 million, later boosted to $767 million, for 20 projects. Oregon got just $8 million, mostly for roof repairs and partial seismic reinforcement of Portland’s Union Station.

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Comparison of Amtrak and Greyhound bus fares one way:

Amtrak

Portland/Eugene: $28; $154 for 10-ride ticket.

Portland/Salem: $16; $88 for 10-ride ticket.

Portland/Seattle: As low as $35, but more during peak times.

Greyhound

Portland/Eugene: $21-31; lowest is web-only fare, highest is refundable fare. Standard fare is in-between.

Portland/Salem: $15-21.

Portland/Seattle: $22-42.