Possible cuts to Amtrak service raise stakes of Salem’s transportation limbo

Possible cuts to Amtrak service raise stakes of Salem’s transportation limbo

Bikes on Amtrak

The Cascades line is arguably the bike-friendliest
in the country.
(Photo: Will Vanlue)

One of the country’s most-ridden Amtrak lines could have its southern tail chopped off unless Oregon legislators find another $5 million to keep it whole.

The state-sponsored Amtrak Cascades service between Eugene and Portland, with stops in Albany, Salem, Woodburn and Oregon City, is likely to be eliminated unless the state is willing to cover the one-third of the line’s operating costs, $28 million annually, that aren’t covered by ticket revenue.

The Oregon Department of Transportation has already found $18 million from non-general funds, and the legislature’s working budget framework reportedly adds another $5 million from general funds. That leaves about $5 million left to find.

The Cascades line, which also runs north to Seattle, Vancouver BC and other cities, is maybe the country’s bike-friendliest train line; for $5, it lets you add a bike to any trip, rolling it on and off the platform yourself to hang it in the luggage car. This has proved popular; the line has been adding more bike parking hooks as its existing ones fill up on weekends.

The passenger rail service is just one of many transportation decisions caught in the crossfire of a fight between Republicans and Democrats over creating a low-carbon fuel standard in the state. Republicans have been blocking all action on a proposed gas tax hike unless Democrats kill the fuel standard, which would add an estimated 4 to 19 cents per gallon to the cost of gasoline by 2025.

The City of Portland, meanwhile, has put its own search for transportation revenue on hold in hopes that Salem will hike gas taxes.

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Three Cascades trains currently run south of Portland each day. The Coast Starlight, a different line that is less reliably on schedule, adds a fourth run.

On Monday, the Wallawa County Chieftan reported that State Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) was saying there is “no story here” because legislators would not fail to find $5 million.

Johnson suggested to the Chieftain that in order to get its state subsidy, the Cascades line should adjust its schedule to capture more commute traffic between Portland and Salem.

The Portland-to-Eugene route has been discussed as a future high-speed rail corridor, too. But ridership demand for that segment falls far short of those for the Portland-to-Seattle corridor, one of the nation’s most popular city pairings and the key segment on the Cascades line.

However, passenger rail advocates say that cutting Willamette Valley cities out of the network would hurt the entire line’s viability.

“If you think of it as a system, any change to one part of the system is going to affect all other parts of the system,” David Arnold, president of the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates, told KOIN last month. “So this line is really critical.”

Meanwhile, Amtrak Cascades has faced private competition from BoltBus, a low-cost bus line with runs to Eugene, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver BC. BoltBus relies on the Interstate highway system, which is paid for by a combination of gas taxes and general funds, including its exemption from property taxes.

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