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If Trump's budget passes, Amtrak service could end in ND, MN

Amtrak's Empire Builder train makes a stop in Fargo on its way from Chicago to Seattle. File photo.1 / 2
Amtrak passengers watch as the westbound train pulls into the Fargo station late on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. File photo.2 / 2

FARGO — North Dakota, Minnesota and other states could be without Amtrak service if a proposal in President Donald Trump's budget becomes reality.

The president's budget calls for eliminating federal funding for Amtrak's "long distance train services, which have long been inefficient and incur the vast majority of Amtrak's operating losses."

The budget doesn't explicitly name the Empire Builder route, which runs from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, passing through Minnesota and North Dakota. But the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) believes it would be among the long-distance routes terminated.

In North Dakota, this would mean no more Amtrak service in Fargo, Grand Forks, Devils Lake, Rugby, Minot, Stanley and Williston. In Minnesota, Detroit Lakes, Staples, St. Cloud, St. Paul-Minneapolis, Red Wing and Winona would lose service.

NARP is opposed to Trump's proposal, saying long-distance routes "open up enormous economic development opportunities."

"It's ironic that President Trump's first budget proposal undermines the very communities whose economic hardship and sense of isolation from the rest of the country helped propel him into office," NARP President Jim Mathews said in a statement.

Amtrak, which is run like a for-profit business, is partly funded by the government and often comes under the scrutiny of fiscal hawks. In response to Trump's budget, which was released in March, Amtrak President and CEO Wick Moorman defended the 15 long-distance routes that provide the only Amtrak service in 23 of the 46 states where the railway operates.

"Amtrak is very focused on running efficiently — we covered 94 percent of our total network operating costs through ticket sales and other revenues in FY16 — but these services all require Federal investment," Moorman said in a statement.

How receptive Congress will be to slashing Amtrak's subsidies is uncertain. But U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, an early Trump supporter, said chances are "very low" that the president's proposal will be carried out by Congress. "The old saying, 'The president proposes, and Congress disposes,' is really true," he said.

Cramer, R-N.D., said he's against eliminating the Empire Builder, which served 454,625 passengers in fiscal year 2016. "That's a lot of people that would have to be going on some other means of transportation," he said, noting that the route's used by not just vacationers but also workers headed to North Dakota.

All of Minnesota and North Dakota's U.S. senators issued statements in support of maintaining Amtrak's funding. U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., did not respond to requests for comment.

"Without the Empire Builder, folks in rural communities like Rugby and Devils Lake would be less connected, harming our rural economies," said U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said that as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he's working with other senators to keep Amtrak's funding in place. "While we continue working to find savings and reductions to reduce our debt and deficit, we need to fund our priorities including supporting rural communities and their economies," he said.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said the Empire Builder is a key piece of Minnesota's rural transportation network. "I will work to make sure that any final budget continues funding for the Empire Builder route," she said.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said that during meetings throughout Minnesota, his office has heard that communities are worried about Trump's budget proposal. "If passed by Congress as is, the plan would hack away at or even eliminate dozens of important investments that support families in Greater Minnesota," Franken said.

Including the proposed cuts to Amtrak, Trump's budget would lower federal transportation spending by $2.4 billion, a 13 percent reduction.

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