Amtrak rail service in Grand County could be on the chopping block
April 11, 2017
A few short weeks ago, on Thursday March 16, the recently minted Trump administration released their first-year budget priorities proposal, commonly referred to as the "skinny budget," with potential impacts for rail service in Grand County.
The so-called skinny budget is a tradition in Washington politics. Each year, the President releases a budget proposal. Under the US Constitution, only Congress can formally allocate funds and approve federal budgets, though. The Presidential budget functions as a roadmap of priorities and signals to the nation broadly what areas will take priority for the administration.
Because of the timing of Presidential inaugurations and the convening of congress, newly inaugurated administrations have little time to develop in-depth budget proposals. As such, first-year administrations typically release truncated budgets, called skinny budgets, the first spring after inauguration.
The Trump administration's skinny budget has already drawn its fair share of support and criticism, but there is one particular area of the budget that residents of Grand County might want to take note. The America First Budget, as it is named, proposes to cut the Department of Transportation's budget by 13 percent, or $2.4 billion.
The cut would eliminate entirely federal funding for Amtrak's 15 long-distance train routes across the US, including the California Zephyr that stops in Granby on its route from San Francisco to Chicago.
The budget document released by the Trump administration states, "The Budget terminates Federal support for Amtrak's long distance train service, which have long been inefficient and incur the vast majority of Amtrak's operating losses. This would allow Amtrak to focus on better managing its State-supported and Northeast Corridor train services."
Officials from Amtrak were less than thrilled by the proposal. Amtrak President and CEO Wick Moorman stated the, "budget proposal to eliminate funding for Amtrak's long distance service could impact many of the 500 communities we serve." Moorman pointed out Amtrak operates 15 long-distance train routes across the US and that such routes, "offer the only Amtrak service in 23 of the 46 states we serve," stated Moorman.
In fiscal year 2016 Amtrak, "covered 94 percent of our total network operating costs through ticket sales and other revenues," Moorman stated. "But these services all require Federal investment."
According to additional data from Amtrak, the entity's unaudited operating loss for fiscal year 2016 was $227 million. During that same fiscal year, Amtrak provided service for approximately 31.3 million rail passengers. An average of about 85,700 passengers ride Amtrak's 300 trains daily across the entire US.
Grand County Commissioner Rich Cimino expressed his opposition to any reductions in Amtrak funding. "If cuts are made to Amtrak, all passenger rail traffic in Grand County could be eliminated. This might eliminate all Amtrak stops in our county," Cimino stated. "This is bad for our economy, and bad public policy. I am hopeful the final federal budget includes all funds for Amtrak. I encourage people to send letters to our two Colorado Senators and our federal representative in support of Amtrak funding."
Regardless of any decisions made by Congress regarding President Trump's budget proposal Grand County's other notable train operation, the Winter Park Express, is not expected to see any impacts.
"From our standpoint, we have had no indications that this will impact the Winter Park Express," stated Winter Park Resort spokesman Steve Hurlbert. "In fact, we're already working extremely hard with Amtrak and Union Pacific on potential improvements to the service next season."
Officials based out of Amtrak's Chicago Union Station confirmed Hurlbert's understanding of the funding dynamic and pointed out the Winter Park Express is basically run as a charter service.