Amtrak officials push for funding change during metro area tour

Amtrak, which is pushing for a change in the way long-distance passenger rail service is funded, brought its case Thursday to the metro New Orleans area, which is served by three Amtrak lines.

The president and CEO of Amtrak, Joseph Boardman, used stops in New Orleans and Slidell to tout the importance of service to those cities.

He first visited the National World War II Museum in New Orleans to announce efforts to hire more veterans, then went to Slidell to meet with city officials there before heading to several stops in Mississippi.

Amtrak wants to be able to use revenue generated on its heavily traveled Northeast Corridor lines to pay for infrastructure costs there, such as bridges, tunnels, signaling systems and other components. Currently, Northeast Corridor revenue that exceeds operating costs — usually $200 million to $300 million annually — is used in part to subsidize the cost of long-distance rail lines like those that serve New Orleans, Boardman said, even though long-distance trains have been a federal responsibility since 1971.

Amtrak is asking for $1.62 billion in federal capital and operating support in its budget request for fiscal year 2015, a 16 percent increase, and it wants Congress to pay the full cost — capital and operating — for long-distance routes. The chance of winning congressional support for those requests, especially in the House, is slim.

The long-distance trains serving Louisiana are the Crescent, which provides daily service from New Orleans to Atlanta and New York; the City of New Orleans, with daily service from New Orleans to Memphis and Chicago; and the Sunset Limited, a triweekly run from New Orleans to Los Angeles.

Amtrak officials point to the risk of not replacing aging infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor, which has half of Amtrak’s trains and 80 percent of the country’s rail commuters. But long-distance trains also are important to cities across the country, Boardman said, connecting small towns to major cities and supporting economic development.

New Orleans had 212,426 passengers get on or off an Amtrak train in 2013, an increase of about 100,000 passengers since Hurricane Katrina, Boardman said. Slidell has seen ridership increase as well, with 7,596 passengers boarding or alighting at the station on Front Street in 2013.

If passenger train service were to end, even temporarily, Boardman said, it would be difficult for New Orleans to get it back simply because developers would be vying to do something else with the prime real estate where Union Passenger Station is located.

Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan said the city doesn’t want to lose the Crescent, which stops in Slidell, and he has appointed a commission to look at improving the train depot. The city wants to replace the platform, which is old, and replace it with one that’s larger and covered, he said. But that’s too costly for the city to do on its own, and one of the things Slidell officials discussed with Boardman on Thursday was seeking funding through the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation.