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An S-R political reporter rides the rails to Spokane as Amtrak turns 50 and Biden pushes for better rail service

WASHINGTON – On Sunday afternoon, I’ll be boarding an Amtrak train at Union Station, steps from the U.S. Capitol. Sixty-some hours and 2,659 miles later, I’ll disembark in Spokane.

Sure, it’s not the fastest way to the Lilac City, but let me explain.

A year ago, I filed my first story as The Spokesman-Review’s new Washington, D.C., reporter.

I’d call it my dream job – covering the federal government’s impact on my home state – but to be honest, I didn’t even dream this job would exist when I decided to go back to school and become a journalist. The number of regional reporters who cover the nation’s capital for local outlets has dwindled over the years, and I’m grateful the S-R and Report for America decided to buck that trend and invest in keeping an eye on our congressional delegation, the executive branch and the federal courts.

But when I sat down to write that first story, it wasn’t quite what I’d expected.

Rather than working in the Senate Press Gallery at the Capitol or the National Press Club near the White House, I was hunched over a laptop at my dining table, hoping we’d get this COVID-19 thing under control soon. And like so many people who started jobs during the pandemic, I had to get to know my new colleagues over Zoom calls instead of meeting them in person.

A year later, I’m finally headed back to the Northwest. But rather than hopping on a flight from one of the three airports that surround D.C., I’ve chosen a mode of transportation that, after decades of relative obscurity, may be having its moment in the sun.

Jesse Tinsley - The Spokesman-Review

The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak, marked its 50th anniversary on May 1. After cutting back during the darkest days of the pandemic, the quasi-public corporation is reopening its daily long-distance routes this month with the help of $1.7 billion Congress provided through a coronavirus relief package in March.

I’ll be on the first train that leaves Chicago for Spokane, the storied “Empire Builder,” when daily service on that route resumes Monday. I’ll get to Chicago via an overnight trip on the Capitol Limited, which travels from the nation’s capital through Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; Pittsburgh; Cleveland; and South Bend, Indiana.

After leaving Chicago on Monday, I’ll travel through Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Fargo, North Dakota, and Libby, Montana – plus 29 other stops – before arriving in Spokane around 1:40 a.m. Wednesday. That’s assuming I don’t fall victim to Amtrak’s notorious delays; about half of the network’s long-distance trains arrived late between 2017 and 2019, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Along the way, I’ll be writing stories about what I see, the people I meet and the places we travel through. Keep an eye on these pages for updates all week.

It’s not just the congressional Democrats who passed the $1.9 trillion relief package (Republicans unanimously called it too expensive) who have Amtrak’s back.

President “Amtrak Joe” Biden, perhaps the country’s most famous train passenger, has proposed investing another $80 billion to address Amtrak’s repair backlog, modernize its fleet of “rolling stock” and add new towns and cities to its network. That’s on top of $85 billion to modernize the nation’s public transit system, including commuter rail.

In response to the White House proposal, Amtrak unveiled an ambitious plan to use the funds to expand and improve its service by 2035, including new routes to cities like Phoenix and Nashville, Tennessee, that aren’t part of its existing network.

At a 50th anniversary celebration in Philadelphia on April 30, Biden – who reportedly logged well over 1 million miles riding the train home to Delaware almost daily during his 36 years in the Senate – framed investment in Amtrak as a central part of his agenda to create jobs, modernize the country’s infrastructure and cut carbon emissions.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to position Amtrak … to play a central role in our transformation in transportation and economic future,” Biden said, “to make investments that can help America get back on track – no pun intended.”

The pun was, in fact, intended. The president spoke from a podium bordered by signs that read, “Getting America Back on Track,” the title of his administration’s nationwide tour that kicked off that day to build support for the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, two sets of legislative priorities that would cost a combined $4 trillion over a decade.

Whether Amtrak gets the funding Biden has called for will depend on Congress, where Republicans have decried the White House proposals as too costly and for taking a broad view of what constitutes infrastructure. Democrats have defined infrastructure as including provisions to transition the country to clean energy and electric vehicles, provide clean drinking water and high-speed internet, and even raising wages for home health workers.

A group of GOP senators has put forward its own infrastructure proposal, reportedly worth $568 billion. The White House made a counteroffer Friday worth $1.7 trillion, down from the $2.3 trillion in Biden’s American Jobs Plan. If that gap proves too wide for the parties to span in negotiations, Democrats could use a procedure called budget reconciliation to pass an infrastructure package without Republican votes.

One of Amtrak’s key supporters is Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate’s transportation committee.

Cantwell pushed for Amtrak to resume daily service on its long-distance routes, including the Empire Builder and the Coast Starlight, which runs between Seattle and Los Angeles. The Rail Passengers Association, an advocacy group, estimated Amtrak’s decision to cut service on those routes during the pandemic would cost rural communities $2.3 billion in lost economic activity.

“Amtrak is critical for millions of people and for us, the two lines in Washington state – the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder – they serve 15 communities and a majority of them being small and rural communities,” Cantwell said in an August hearing to confirm nominees to Amtrak’s board of directors.

Ray Lang, Amtrak’s vice president of state-supported services, said the rail network has a number of advantages over traveling by car or by air. In addition to reaching small towns like Minot, North Dakota, and Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Lang pointed out that trains go straight into city centers rather than airports, which are typically far from downtown areas.

But Amtrak has a lot of work to do to catch up with the way the country has changed since Congress passed the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1970, creating Amtrak to take over money-losing passenger services from the nation’s privately owned railroads.

“If you look at a map of the Amtrak system in 1971 and then look at today, it doesn’t look too much different,” Lang said. “But the population of the United States looks a lot different than it did 50 years ago.”

Improving service to booming metro areas like Atlanta and Houston, connecting cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas for the first time, and updating an aging fleet will take lots of money. With Biden’s presidency and momentum in Congress to overhaul the nation’s infrastructure, this may be Amtrak’s best chance.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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