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Area Amtrak routes threatened

North Dakota and Minnesota Amtrak passengers - and those across the country - face the end of the line if a proposal approved Wednesday by a House subcommittee gains further support.

North Dakota and Minnesota Amtrak passengers - and those across the country - face the end of the line if a proposal approved Wednesday by a House subcommittee gains further support.

The proposal was part of a transportation bill that would cut Amtrak's budget by more than half and limit federal subsidies to $30 per passenger per ride.

Amtrak's Empire Builder, which runs through North Dakota and Minnesota, would be among the routes losing subsidies.

The cuts require House and Senate approval, and would not apply to most Amtrak service in the Northeast corridor and to shorter corridor routes in the Midwest and California.

Amtrak President and CEO David Gunn said in a letter issued to employees that the $550 million proposed in federal support would be the same as zero funding.


"And they know it. It can't run a single train from point A to point B - not on the Northeast Corridor and not anywhere," he wrote.

There's still a long process ahead, and this is not a done deal, he said.

"I continue to hope in the end that reason prevails," Gunn wrote.

Amtrak requested $1.8 billion in federal funds for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

During last year's budget cycle, lawmakers funded Amtrak at $1.2 billion.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said the subcommittee news is "a big disappointment."

North Dakota ridership increased from 82,926 in fiscal year 2003 to 89,319 in 2004, according to Amtrak.

The Empire Builder's North Dakota route goes from Fargo to Grand Forks to Williston. Minnesota's route stretches from Winona to Fargo.


Minnesota's ridership increased from 159,209 in fiscal year 2003 to 172,177 in 2004.

Dorgan pointed to statistics to show how important Amtrak is to rural states.

"Shutting down trains like the Empire Builder will be a real setback to our transportation system in the country," Dorgan said.

North Dakota struggled with another transportation issue last year when Greyhound discontinued bus services. Rimrock Stages Trailways took over the route.

The Amtrak plan drew protests from House subcommittee Democrats who said it would unfairly punish rural residents.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Joe Knollenberg said some money-losing routes require federal subsidies of more than $400 per passenger.

"Congress will no longer sanction extremely unprofitable routes," said Knollenberg, R-Mich.

Amtrak generally has stronger support in the Senate, where its money-losing routes serve many states represented by majority Republicans.


Even Knollenberg seemed to predict his proposal would be modified later in negotiations with the Senate.

The Bush administration says eliminating operating subsidies would leave the passenger rail system with stronger routes and entice subsidies from local governments.

National Association of Railroad Passengers Assistant Director David Johnson said the group continues to reach out to Capitol Hill to save Amtrak.

The proposal means a lack of public transportation for many rural Americans and a lack of affordable transportation, he said.

"It (would) have a great impact on everybody," Johnson said. "It would serve to further widen the gap between rural and urban America."

He encouraged citizens to contact their congressional delegates. "Today is just the first step in a long process, but it's not a good first step," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Readers can reach Forum reporter Teri Finneman at (701) 241-5560

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