Editorial: Three Trains Running, But for How Long?

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Save Amtrak! And then some...
Chris Wissmann

Bruce Rauner is, if nothing else, a man of his word. Illinois’s Republican governor promised to balance the budget by slashing spending, and while negotiations with the legislature haven’t yet produced a budget, let alone a balanced one, Rauner has proposed an awful lot of cuts.

One that hits all state universities hard— but SIU in particular— is Rauner’s proposal for Amtrak. The popular rail service is in line for a forty percent reduction if Rauner has his way. The result— Carbondale will almost certainly lose at least one of its three daily trains to and from Chicago, and fares will significantly increase.

SIU is farther from Illinois’s major population center than any other state university, and as a result its students might rely on Amtrak more than their peers at other schools. Losing affordable public transportation to Chicago could prove devastating to SIU enrollment, which has fallen twenty-five percent since 1991. Cuts in Amtrak funding and services would certainly make SIU less accessible to Chicago-area students, and the cultural and economic consequences of further enrollment declines would prove devastating to the community.

If anything, Rauner, in partnership with the General Assembly, should significantly improve Amtrak service, in particular suffering on-time performance and deathly slow travel speeds. This could greatly expand the educational opportunities for university students alone— to say nothing of bolstering general tourism and business travel across the state.

But keeping the trains running at all, let alone on time or accelerating them to the speeds citizens ought to expect, is a potentially hard sell to Rauner, as well as legislators from the many parts of Illinois that don’t house Amtrak stops.

Meanwhile, as nationwide ridership and revenue increased, the latter to record levels, both fell slightly on the Illini and Saluki trains as well as on the City of New Orleans between Fiscal Year 2013 and Fiscal Year 2014. Republicans like Rauner aren’t inclined to throw good money after bad. (At least that’s the stereotype they like to perpetuate.)

One reason the trains running through Carbondale might have reduced ridership— SIU enrollment, which, again, has fallen sharply for the last twenty-four years. (It’s not funny that so many of the problems facing Carbondale stem from SIU’s inability to attract and retain students.) The smaller the school and community get, the more Springfield politicians can treat Carbondale’s concerns as expendable. The rumored declines in SIU enrollment this fall, should they materialize, won’t help.

In any event, getting state legislators and the governor to fear significant consequences from enacting Rauner’s proposed cuts will require vigorous voter support for Amtrak.

Luckily, the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce understands the danger that Rauner’s proposed Amtrak cuts pose to the community, and is circulating an online petition to support funding for this vital service. Nightlife’s readers— especially students who rely on the train to get them to and from Chicago and other points up north— should take the time to visit <http://CarbondaleChamber.com>, sign the petition, and add their own comments. Then they should register to vote and cast their ballots on Election Day according to how gubernatorial and legislative candidates respond to demands for full Amtrak funding.

But such piecemeal battles— for Amtrak funding, local-government funding, higher-education funding, social-services funding— have become scattershot, rearguard efforts that isolate vulnerable constituents and leave them fighting over scraps.

Those who perform essential economic and social tasks that rely on state funding must stop so desperately playing into Rauner’s divide-and-conquer tactics. Ultimately, they cannot allow the budget fight in Springfield to become an issue of Amtrak versus social services, for example, or universities versus community colleges. Restoration of Amtrak funding does Carbondale no good if it comes with a commiserate decrease in SIU funding. If they don’t hang together, they will hang separately.

They also need to form a public consensus on taxation. Illinois has for many years spent money on programs and services, their various merits aside, that it didn’t have the revenue to afford. Without substantial increases to income or sales taxes and new revenue streams like the so-called LaSalle Street tax on speculative commodities trading, Illinois will quickly go broke, and massive budget cuts such as Rauner prefers will become compulsory.

 

A just end to the fiscal war in Springfield will require the budget to reflect the kind of state Illinois must become if all of its citizens will have a chance to prosper. This will entail big-picture thinking and organization— strong coalitions between funding recipients— an effort that’s too big to fail, too large for politicians in Springfield to ignore. Hopefully, however, it’s not too big and unwieldy to get underway, or Illinois citizens will go through these fights every year while state officials keep hacking away at the budget until there’s nothing left.