But why would the Cascades be in trouble? In the past, we’ve touted the route as a paragon of success. Washington state and Oregon’s investment in modern equipment and upgrading track speeds has made the line one of the most popular state-supported Amtrak routes in the country. In 2013, the Cascades carried nearly 783,000 passengers along the route between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Eugene, Oregon. With such high ridership, it would seem that there would be no real threat to the line’s future.
Unfortunately, the vagaries of politics intervened. The Oregon legislature’s 2015-2017 budget slashes funding for Oregon’s share of the Cascades to just over $5 million, half the amount requested by former Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), and barely a quarter of what Amtrak had initially demanded for the service. While this might seem like a lot on paper, in practice, it represents a small proportion of Oregon’s total transportation budget. As a percentage of the overall 2011-2013 budget, the governor’s $10 million request represented only two-tenths of one percent of all transportation funding. The state legislature’s budget would cut that amount to just one-tenth of one percent.
But this cut, if enacted, will have severe consequences for the Cascades’s future. In a hearing last week, Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) officials said that if the bill were passed, they would be obliged to suspend service between Portland and Eugene beginning on July 1. Although the legislature has yet to pass this or any other budget bills, the possibility of discontinuation still looms.
Or does it? State Sen. Richard Devlin argued that advocates’ fears may be misplaced. The budget’s backers do not mean for the state to cut support for the service. Rather, they want ODOT to find the money from within funds already appropriated for the agency, as opposed to using monies from the general fund. And although Devlin said he was optimistic that either ODOT or the legislature would find funding in time to prevent discontinuation, it is not immediately clear what such funding would look like, or whether it would be at the levels needed to ensure that the Cascades service continues.
We recognize that many states, including Oregon, are facing hard decisions on their finances. But we are concerned that an emphasis on finding “alternative” funding may threaten the Cascades' immediate survival. Many state legislators share our concern and have supported alternative legislation that would give ODOT all of the required funding. Finally, we are also concerned that withholding the remaining $10 million will mean that the $17 million ODOT has already secured may be wasted. Given the amount already invested, it makes no sense to discontinue service at this stage.
Our friends at the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates have closely followed this debate and have urged Oregonians to write their legislators expressing their support for the train. We urge you to do the same: your support will be crucial to keeping the Cascades on track.
Oregon has been at the forefront of U.S. passenger rail for years. The state legislature should ensure that Oregon keeps this status by fully funding service between Portland and Eugene.