In the budget he submitted to Congress, President Donald Trump proposed eliminating all operating expenses for long-distance Amtrak passenger trains.
He said this will force the states to come up with the funding for the trains. Alternatively, he proposes to substitute intercity bus service for the passenger trains. But intercity buses just don't equate with the current Amtrak trains.
On trains, you have meal service in a dining car, sleeping space for overnight trips and the ability to get up and walk around. Riding a bus, the only food will be what you get can get from vending machines at bus stations along the way. If you can sleep, it will be sitting up rather than lying down. Showers are available on long-distance trains but not buses. You might be able to walk a bit down the aisle of a bus but not very far.
Nebraska is currently served by the California Zephyr trains, one each direction each 24 hours. Stops are made in Omaha, Lincoln, Hastings, Holdrege and McCook. Amtrak reports ridership has been increasing each year on the Zephyrs, both in Nebraska and overall. Other long-distance trains have seen ridership increases also.
These long-distance trains are also used for regional travel. A number of people ride from Hastings to Denver, Lincoln or Omaha. Lincoln and Omaha riders may use the trains to Chicago or Denver. Other states have their own regional routes. Not all riders take the trains all the way from Chicago to near San Francisco.
Passenger trains are the all-weather mode of transit, too. This winter, when Interstate 80 was closed across much of Nebraska because of blizzards and air planes were grounded from snow, extreme cold or icing on airplane wings, the Amtrak trains continued to get through, although some were a bit late.
For many smaller cities and towns, passenger rail provides the only public transportation available. The majority of Nebraskans live with a 50-mile zone along the Amtrak route. We need to increase and improve public transit in Nebraska, rather than eliminating existing trains.
Concerned citizens should write our congressional delegation and urge Congress to put funding for long-distance trains back in the budget. Our national rail passenger network is a shell of its former self -- and we need to be adding, not subtracting.
There is also a safety factor involved. A study by the American Public Transit Association found that a person is 10 times safer riding public transportation than driving his or her own automobile, based on the number of accidents.
Rail travel is also more environmentally friendly than other modes. With much less rolling resistance, railroads can haul a ton of freight -- or passengers -- while expending much less fuel.
Pending in the Nebraska Legislature is LB401, which would have Nebraska rejoin the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact, an association of 10 Midwestern states. In addition to promoting increased passenger rail service, it speaks as a collective voice to maintain current Amtrak trains, such as the California Zephyr.
LB401 remains stalled in committee because senators have insisted the MIPRC dues of $15,000 be paid using private money. However, membership in comparable groups for highway engineers ($35,300) and aviation departments ($9,000) come out of tax dollars. Why require payment for rail out of private funds when the dues for professional associations involving other modes are being paid from tax funds?
Passing LB401 would position Nebraska to better ensure the future of these long-distance trains. Being a part of MIPRC is in accord with Gov. Pete Ricketts' stated goals of growing Nebraska's economy, increasing tourism, promotion mobility for the workforce and caring for aging Nebraskans who still need to travel but no longer drive.
The governor has yet to speak on LB401, but he should step forward and urge its passage. Opposing it would be at odds with his initiatives to help Nebraska grow and prosper.
Let's rejoin MIPRC and restore to Nebraska the rail passenger service the citizens of our state deserve.