Proposed Indiana budget threatens future of 'Hoosier State'

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The Hoosier State, with a consist including equipment being ferried from Amtrak's Beech Grove Heavy Maintenance Facility, rolls through St. John, Indiana, on July 4, 2014.
Bob Johnston
Crawfordsville townspeople and Mayor Todd Barton, left, visit with then-Amtrak president Joe Boardman at an inspection train stop in October 2014.
Bob Johnston

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s budget for the two fiscal years beginning July 1, 2019, does not contain $3 million to preserve Amtrak’s state-sponsored Hoosier State, but civic leaders from towns along its Chicago-Indianapolis route have vowed to get funding reinstated.

The train provides four round trips per week on days when the triweekly Chicago-Washington-New York Cardinal doesn’t operate.

Holcomb, whose proposed annual budget for the two years is $33.8 billion, told Statehouse on Thursday that the train “hasn’t performed as originally billed” and travelers could ride the Cardinal on the days it operates (Thursdays and Saturdays, plus Monday morning into Chicago and Tuesday evening into Indianapolis).

In the Amtrak fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2018, the Hoosier State generated about $915,000 in ticket revenue (down 6 percent from the previous year), carrying 27,876 passengers (down 5.5 percent). However, in the last three months of 2018, ridership was up more than 4 percent and revenue was up 6 percent compared with the same 2017 period.

In addition to $3 million in state funding for the last three years, Lafayette, West Lafayette, Tippecanoe County, Rensselaer, and Crawfordsville have together contributed about $500,000 annually. The on-line communities first became involved when Indiana balked at paying for the train as required in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act.    

After a state attempt to outsource onboard service and marketing fell through in 2014, Amtrak agreed to keep the train running while local financial support materialized. The following August, Indiana hired Iowa Pacific Holdings, which offered full dining and business class amenities utilizing heritage cars and locomotive. Amtrak again took over in March 2017 after Iowa Pacific requested to be let out of a contract guaranteeing Amtrak expenses were paid first.

The Indianapolis Star quotes Indiana budget director Micah Vincent as saying the Hoosier State’s ridership is not high enough or growing quickly enough to justify the $3 million annual subsidy, though the state has thus far made no tangible effort to improve running times through more than token infrastructure improvements. Marketing efforts have been largely limited to Facebook and Twitter posts, while Amtrak management has eliminated route-specific promotion.

The Lafayette Journal & Courier reports that a key elected official is Republican Rep. Tim Brown of Crawfordsville, chairman of the House Budget Committee. He told the paper he was previously “on board with the $3 million, but at this time I have no thoughts one way or the other.”

Meanwhile, officials from towns along the route have vowed to push for funding restoration. The Journal & Courier says West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis, Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski, Crawfordsville Mayor Todd Barton, and Tippecanoe County Commissioner Tom Murtaugh contacted each other Friday and are formulating a game plan.

“I’d say we didn’t see this one coming,” Dennis told the Journal & Courier. “We need to sit down and figure out what our next step is. … Is this just a hiccup in the budget process? Who knows? But we’re about to find out. And we’ve saved the train before.”

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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