State house cuts Amtrak funding

Thursday, March 29, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The House has voted to strip most state funding of Amtrak passenger trains and redirected the money toward public school busing.

Lawmakers removed $6.3 million from the government-supported railroad through a series of amendments on Tuesday and Wednesday. Amtrak provides twice-daily train service between Kansas City and St. Louis, with several stops in between.

The cut would stop Amtrak from getting any general state dollars, though a transportation fund still would give the railroad $1.2 million in the 2008 fiscal year that begins July 1.

But transportation officials say it costs about $7 million a year to run the trains.

Of the money budgeted for Amtrak, House members shifted $5.3 million to help school districts pay for rising busing costs; $640,000 to Lincoln University in Jefferson City; $300,000 for a video project that interviews war veterans; and $100,000 to a health clinic near Springfield.

Supporters of the Amtrak cuts complained that the trains often are late and the railroad is inefficient.

The Department of Transportation's multimodal operations director, Brian Weiler, said the cuts are a concern. But he stressed that the budget is still early in the legislative process.

"There is no doubt that Amtrak has struggled in Missouri over the last several years," he said. "But it remains an important transportation option for those who use it."

The state's $21 billion budget has yet to be considered in the Senate.

Funding for Amtrak has been a target for budget cuts in the past, particularly in the House. But the Senate typically has turned back those cuts.

Amtrak supporters said cuts could make it harder for people without driver's licenses to travel in Missouri.

"I hate to see those wheels quit turning, even if it may not be the most efficient way to go," Rep. Jim Whorton, D-Trenton, said Wednesday.

About 175,000 people ride Amtrak annually.

While train ridership in Missouri has dipped in recent years from a high of about 200,000, riders have increased nationwide. And several states, including Illinois, have increased state funding for Amtrak.

In Missouri, Amtrak uses tracks owned by Union Pacific. That forces the passenger trains to give freight trains the right of way, which sometimes makes the trains late.

The trains are on time about 70 percent of the time, Weiler said. A study has been commissioned to find ways to keep passenger trains on schedule more often. He said improving the trains' timeliness is one of the biggest goals aimed at getting more riders.

Lawmakers on Wednesday also voted to cut $1.5 million and restrict how the remaining $13.5 million from a life sciences trust fund can be used. That came after members voted 94-62 to keep the money in the budget.

The life sciences trust fund was created by legislation in 2003 to funnel 25 percent of the state's yearly proceeds from a tobacco settlement into research. That legislation bars money from being used for research involving abortions and certain forms of embryonic stem cell research.

Last year was the first year money from the fund could be appropriated. But a combination of financial worries and concerns that the money could support embryonic stem cell research prompted lawmakers to hold back.

Under this year's budget, money from the life sciences trust fund would be limited to bioenergy, odor abatement and projects at the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility, Gateway Fund and Animal Health Corridor.

Some lawmakers did not want to appropriate any money from the fund, citing a voter-approved constitutional amendment that protects stem cell research and prohibits the government from denying money to entities because they conduct such research.

Transportation budget is HB4.

Life Sciences Trust Fund is HB7.

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