Amtrak supporters appeal for funding for Hoosier State line

With the end of Indiana's legislative session nearing, Amtrak has only days left to hop on board the state budget.

Unless the state agrees to add $3 million annually for Amtrak to the two-year state budget, the Hoosier State line run by Amtrak from Indianapolis to Chicago will reach the end of the line.

Supporters of the service, including Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, rallied at the Statehouse on Wednesday to make a last-ditch appeal for the funding.

Amtrak announced earlier this month that it had stopped selling tickets for service after June 30, and said the service would not continue after that date without the state funds.

Gov. Eric Holcomb axed the Amtrak funding in the budget he proposed, and so far neither the House nor Senate has added it back in.

The Hoosier State runs four days a week (Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday) and makes stops in Crawfordsville, Lafayette, West Lafayette, Tippecanoe County and Rensselaer on its way to and from Chicago. The train is frequently used by Purdue University students who live in Chicago or Indianapolis.

It receives $3 million annually in subsidies from the state under the current two-year budget, plus a combined $500,000 annually from the five local communities along the route.

Amtrak’s Cardinal line, which also runs from Indianapolis to Chicago but isn't state subsidized because it is part of a longer route, will continue to run on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Indiana began subsidizing the Hoosier State in 2013 after Congress ended federal funding for Amtrak passenger routes shorter than 750 miles. The Hoosier Line is only 196 miles.

The line’s ridership is the smallest of Amtrak’s state-supported routes and has declined over the past five years.

During Amtrak’s 2014 fiscal year, which began in October 2013, the Hoosier State carried 33,930 passengers. That number dropped to 27,876 in the 2018 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. Ridership was up 4.3 percent during the first three months of the current fiscal year (July-September).

For the 2018 fiscal year, gross ticket revenue totaled $902,000.

Low ridership numbers mean government support subsidizes about 75 percent of the cost of each Hoosier State ticket sold, Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Scott Manning told IBJ in February.

Put another way: For every ticket sold, Amtrak receives $32.85 from passengers (including train fare and on-train food and beverage sales) and $100.89 in state and local funding.

Hoosier State supporters say losing the line would have ramifications. The reduced frequency of passenger service between Indianapolis and Chicago would also hurt operations at Amtrak’s Beech Grove heavy maintenance facility, which employs about 500 people.

The facility is one of three such operations in Amtrak’s system, and it does work for Amtrak and other rail companies. If service drops to three days a week, Magliari said, the Beech Grove facility would lose flexibility to ship equipment back and forth on the line.

Magliari said Amtrak also supports about $80 million in payroll and procurement in Indiana that could be reduced if the line disappears.

Supporters say the Hoosier State accounts for $10.5 million in economic impact in local communities along the line.

“It’s more energy efficient, cleaner and it’s safer,” Alting said of train travel as opposed to driving to Chicago. “How many more reasons can you get?”

Alting authored an amendment to include the amount asked for by Amtrak in the budget, but he was asked to hold it until after the budget forecast was released Wednesday. He acknowledged that forecast, which showed the state taking in about $100 million less than expected over the next two years, “didn’t help us.”

Rep. Sheila Klinker, D-Lafayette, said "the Hoosier State line is well worth fighting for. We should be looking for ways to improve and invest in rail transportation rather than cutting funding. It’s a reliable and affordable means of transportation for students and Hoosiers.”

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