A red line across a map in Toby Bennington’s office in Anniston ends with a red asterisk at the city’s Amtrak train station downtown.
The red line represents a planned extension of the Chief ladiga Trail and promises more tourism for the city, but President Donald Trump’s proposed budget could derail those plans, if it becomes law.
Released last week, Trump’s budget outline would either reduce Anniston’s Amtrak service or end it altogether. It could do the same to Amtrak’s other long-distance train routes, disrupting service in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and hundreds of other communities nationwide.
Bennington, Anniston’s director of planning and economic development, also worries that the proposed budget would end a federal grant program that city officials hope could help revitalize downtown.
“This is all proposed at this point,” Bennington said, speaking by phone Wednesday of the budget, but he added that if approved, it would have a serious impact on Anniston’s Amtrak station and downtown multimodal plan.
Trump’s budget calls for a $54 billion increase in defense spending and eliminates funding for Amtrak's long-distance train service, including Anniston’s Crescent line, which connects New Orleans to New York City.
The budget also eliminates the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program, known as TIGER, administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Anniston officials have hoped a TIGER grant will help pay for an approximately $3.3 million project to help remake downtown with bicycle lanes, lighting, green spaces, signage and alley improvements.
The proposed budget states that Amtrak’s long-distance train routes have “long been inefficient and incur the vast majority of Amtrak’s operating losses” and that the cuts would allow Amtrak “to focus on better managing its state-supported and Northeast Corridor train services.”
Mayor Jack Draper said by phone Wednesday that the loss of Anniston’s Amtrak station would be a “huge blow” to the city, to its downtown development plans and the push to grow Anniston’s biking opportunities.
Amtrak President and CEO Wick Moorman, in a response emailed to The Star on Wednesday, wrote that Trump’s budget could impact many of the 500 communities the company serves.
“Amtrak operates 15 long-distance trains across the nation and these routes offer the only Amtrak service in 23 of the 46 states we serve,” Moorman wrote. “These trains connect our major regions, provide vital transportation to residents in rural communities and generate connecting passengers and revenue for our Northeast Corridor and State-Supported services.”
Trump’s proposed cuts to Amtrak come after the company in 2016 covered 94 percent of its operating costs with ticket sales and other revenues, recorded the lowest operating loss since 1973 and an all-time revenue record of $2 billion, according to a Nov. 17, 2016, press release from Amtrak.
During fiscal year 2016 there were 4.5 million riders on Amtrak’s 15 long-distance trains, and 281,000 riders on the Crescent, according to the company’s release.
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, in a message to The Star on Wednesday wrote that the administration’s budget is “just a proposal to Congress.”
“The House is in the early stages of formulating its budget for FY 2018. As always, I strongly advocate for the Third District’s interests throughout the process,” Rogers wrote.
In December the Southern Rail Commision announced Anniston as one of 11 municipalities in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to receive a grant to improve railway stations.
Anniston’s $138,000 portion would extend the city’s Amtrak station platform by 400 feet and allow passengers to load and unload bicycles.
City officials hope that doing so will attract visiting cyclists to the city’s biking opportunities, such as the Coldwater Mountain bike trails and the Chief Ladiga Trail. The city also plans to extend the Chief Ladiga to the train station downtown, and link the station by bicycle path to the trails atop Coldwater.
City officials are to meet with Amtrak and Norfolk Southern in mid-April to review engineering requirements for the city’s platform extension, Bennington said.
“It’s very important to Anniston,” Bennington said, speaking of the city’s Amtrak station, which he said serves communities across north Alabama.
Anniston in 2016 applied for a $5 million TIGER grant. Bennington said that if the city had received the grant, the money would have paid for a comprehensive downtown multimodal plan that calls for bicycle lanes and pedestrian improvements, signage, green spaces and other downtown projects.
Mobile got the grant, but Anniston’s application received praise from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Bennington said. The city plans to apply again this year, he said.
Trump’s budget would eliminate the U.S. Department of Transportation by 13 percent and would eliminate the TIGER grant program. The budget outline states that the TIGER program awards grants for projects that are “generally eligible for funding under existing surface transportation formula programs.”
Elsewhere in Alabama
Kit Tyner, a Tuscaloosa councilman whose district includes the Alberta community, said the city has worked on plans for the city’s new Amtrak station in his community for two years. Losing it would be devastating for the area, he said.
The funding is in place to build it, Tyner said, but Trump’s budget leaves the project in limbo.
Tyner said Tuscaloosa came close to losing its Amtrak station once before, due in part to declines in ridership. The new Amtrak station would not only keep Amtrak in Tuscaloosa, but also help redevelop a community hard-hit by a tornado in 2011, he said.
On April 27, 2011, Alberta was directly hit by an F4 tornado. Tyner said about 65 percent of his community was destroyed or damaged.
Tuscaloosa in 2016 was awarded $314,000 grant from the Southern Rail Commission to build a new station in the former Leland Shopping Center, in Alberta’s tornado recovery area.
Tyner this weekend began a petition that asks for Amtrak’s federal funding to remain in place. He hopes to get at least 100,000 people across Alabama and elsewhere to sign it, and urge Alabama’s senators and representatives to ask the White House to act. He remains optimistic the Crescent route will be saved.
“Hopefully, it will still be a game-changer for us,” Tyner said.
Birmingham’s new $32 million Amtrak and bus station downtown is expected to open this summer.
Trump’s budget states that the long-distance routes are inefficient and that the cut would let the company focus on the more profitable Northeast Corridor routes.
Knox Ross, mayor of Pelahatchie, Miss., and a member of the Southern Rail Commission, said by phone Wednesday that eliminating the long-distance lines would likely make the other routes less profitable.
Ross said Amtrak’s budgeting process spreads costs throughout the company’s routes. Cutting off the long-distance trains would send costs associated with them to the remaining routes.
“Every form of transportation is subsidized,” Ross said. “General fund money goes into highways and airports.”
But Amtrak funding gets a line item in the budget, whereas federal funding for other forms of transportation are less easily spotted in the budget, Ross said.
“I think that things like this are just a call to action, to say ‘OK. We’ve got to do a little more work,’” Ross said. Passenger rail supporters need to better market the service Amtrak provides, he said.
Ross is also confident Amtrak’s funding will remain in place. It’s too critical an infrastructure to let die, he said.