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New timetable draws fewer riders; budget talks leave fate murky

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - The Cascade train, seen here at Old Town's Union Station, would need more money from the state if service is to continue.One key legislator says Oregon will continue state-subsidized passenger rail service between Portland and Eugene.

But Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, also wants Amtrak to change the timing of a weekday morning southbound train that carried barely 5,000 riders in 2014.

The Legislature’s budget framework proposes just $5 million in additional state funds, half of the $10.4 million proposed by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber from the state budget back on Dec. 1. This amount is in addition to the $6.6 million that the state will draw from sales of customized vehicle license plates, a source of past funding for passenger rail.

At the $5 million mark, “we will likely have to end passenger service,” says Shelley Snow, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

But Johnson says lawmakers will come up with enough to continue twice-daily runs in the Willamette Valley. She disputes news accounts that have suggested otherwise.

“There is no story here,” says Johnson, who’s the Senate co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s joint budget subcommittee on transportation and economic development.

But Johnson also says Amtrak needs to change the start time for a weekday southbound train that leaves Portland at 6 a.m., much earlier than it did prior to 2014.

At just 5,529 passengers carried in 2014, “it’s all messed up,” she says.

Oregon and Washington contract with Amtrak to provide passenger service, which includes four daily runs between Portland and Seattle, and two between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.

The service began in 1994, and a second train was added in 2000. Oregon used $38.4 million in federal economic stimulus money in 2009 to purchase two trains, which replaced those it leased from Washington. They began service in 2013.

Why pay more?

Oregon and Washington will have to come up with more money to maintain state-supported service in the 467-mile corridor.

That’s because a 2008 federal law phases out federal subsidies paid to states for Amtrak service in corridors of less than 750 milers. The states will now have to pay the full cost.

Ticket sales pay about two-thirds of Amtrak’s actual costs on the corridor.

According to Amtrak’s website, a one-way standard fare between Portland and Salem is $16; passengers can purchase a 10-ride ticket for $88. Between Portland and Seattle, the one-way fare can be as low as $34, but it’s higher at peak times.

The train is popular for the short hop between Oregon City and Portland, because the one-way fare is $4.50 — and TriMet has cut suburban bus service.

In addition to money from the sales of customized license plates, the state budget also proposes the use of one-time federal funds at $6.9 million, and $4.1 million from the transportation operating fund, which consists of unclaimed fuel refunds from all-terrain vehicles.

The $10.4 million would fully fund Oregon’s share to Amtrak.

Is timing off?

Amtrak service southbound from Portland was switched on Jan. 6, 2014, from 9:30 a.m to 6 a.m. (On weekends and some holidays, the train leaves at 8:30 a.m.)

Ridership on that run for 2014 was just 5,529, compared with 45,858 for the evening southbound run, which leaves Portland at 6 p.m.

“Frankly, we have not been particularly happy with the results,” ODOT rail planner Bob Melbo said. “We are looking at some proposals for a change we might implement later this year.”

Northbound state-subsidized service starts from Eugene at 5:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Combined ridership for those runs in 2014 was close to 62,000.

Overall ridership has risen from 60,531 in 1995 — Oregon service began in mid-1994 — to 215,098 at its peak in 2013. Both figures include Amtrak bus passengers. In 2014, the total dropped to 210,903 overall, and 117,160 were train passengers.

“We’ve always had a contractual relationship with Amtrak to operate the service, and we’ve always had something to say about it,” Melbo said.

Amtrak also operates the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle, but that train receives no state subsidies.

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