June 25, 2008

CHICAGO (June 25)—UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo described himself as “disappointed” after learning that Gov. Rod Blagojevich had targeted the state’s highly successful fleet of Amtrak trains for total elimination in a last-minute budget-cutting exercise.

Blagojevich announced Tuesday passenger-train funds totalling about $28 million would be eliminated entirely in order to balance a Fiscal Year 2009 budget that exceeds the state’s expected income by about $2 billion.

But as of Wednesday both IDOT and Amtrak said there were no immediate plans to eliminate any frequencies, and the office of U.S. Senator Richard Durbin said it had been working with Amtrak and is getting encouraging signs that service would continue.

“We have no plans to suspend service,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey, “We haven’t gotten to the point where we have a whole lot of specifics on this.”

“The situation is very fluid,” Szabo said. “Everyone is very concerned, but there is a broad understanding that now is not the time to eliminate what has been an incredible success story.”

Szabo said it is time for the Governor and leaders of the Illinois General Assembly to “set aside gamesmanship and use statesmanship to solve the state’s budget problems.

“With unprecedented ridership growth and $4.50 a gallon gasoline it is ludicrous to even think about taking away this transportation necessity,” he said.

Szabo noted that since IDOT’s corridor-train program jumped from three round trips a day to seven in 2006, ridership has grown by double digits on all three lines virtually every month.

“Chicago-St. Louis ridership in May this year was up 15.2% over May 2007,” he said. “On the Chicago-Carbondale corridor it was up 19.5%, and between Chicago and Quincy it was up 20.9%. The ‘Hiawathas’ to Milwaukee grew 32.6%.”

Szabo said that on the very day that the governor made his announcement to cut the state’s Amtrak budget, four out of five of the daily Chicago-St. Louis trains were sold out.

“Right now Illinois has the fastest-growing passenger-train program in the nation,” he said. “Why would you want to break the momentum of such a successful program just when it’s on a roll?”

Cutting the trains now would be particularly short-sighted, Szabo said, because ticket revenues are rising even faster than ridership, reducing the trains’ deficit and the size of the subsidy Illinois must pay.

“The passengers are picking up more and more of the cost of these trains,” he said. “The state’s subsidy per passenger—and even its overall subsidy–is dropping. We can’t mess with success.”

Szabo said he remained “hopeful” that the General Assembly and the governor would be able to reconcile their differences over the budget and ensure continuation of the state’s passenger rail program.

“Nobody is expecting anything like the ‘doomsday scenario’ that threatened to shut down much of the state’s public-transit operations during the budget standoff in Springfield last winter,” he said.

“Everybody you talk to in Springfield wants those Amtrak trains to keep running, and so does Sen. Durbin. We expect the governor, legislature and legislative leaders to do what it takes to come together and continue this service.”