By PHIL KABLER
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislation to promote daily service for the Amtrak Cardinal passenger train passed the House of Delegates Wednesday on a 95-5 vote (HB2856), with advocates saying it would benefit tourism and economic development in southern West Virginia.
“It’s going to be a wonderful thing for tourism. It’s going to be good for economic development,” Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, a train engineer, said of prospects of expanding Cardinal service from three to seven days a week.
Boggs noted that the current three-day a week operating schedule is an obstacle that discourages ridership both for residents and tourists visiting the state, and particularly affects business travel.
The bill would authorize the state Tourism Commissioner to enter into compact agreements with other states served by the train and with the National Railroad Passenger Corp., the company that operates Amtrak, in order to improve the quality and frequency of Cardinal service.
It also would authorize the commissioner to set up a special revenue account where funds deposited could be used for promoting enhancement of Cardinal service — a fund that drew objections from some more conservative members of the House.
“I find it very interesting we would be setting up a new special revenue account to subsidize a company owned by the federal government that’s bled cash for years,” said Delegate Michael Folk, R-Berkeley.
“There’s a lot of things we can’t afford. The taxpayers can’t afford it,” Delegate Marshall Wilson, R-Berkeley, added.
The National Railroad Passenger Corporation is a for-profit corporation that receives some federal funding. According to Amtrak, in fiscal 2016, the rail service covered nearly 94 percent of its operating costs, with an operating loss of $227 million on $4.3 billion of capital and operating expenses.
Delegate John O’Neal, R-Raleigh, the lead sponsor of the bill, pointed out that the legislation sets up the account, but directs no state funding to it.
“This bill does not allocate or appropriate $1 out of our budget,” he said.
“As taxpayers, we subsidize airports, we subsidize roads,” Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, responded. “This is one of the least polluting and most convenient forms of transportation in the country.”
In West Virginia, the Cardinal travels through the New River Gorge and serves communities including White Sulphur Springs, Hinton, Charleston, Huntington and Prince.
Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell, said numerous Boy Scout councils from around the country will be taking the Cardinal to Prince for the Scouts’ National Jamboree in July, and said Scouts from around the world will be flying into Washington, D.C., and taking the train to West Virginia for the World Jamboree in 2019 at the Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve.
“They’ll be able to take the Amtrak straight into Prince,” he said.
Currently, the Cardinal operates between New York City and Chicago, serving communities in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, and along the Northeast rail corridor. In the West Virginia portion of the route, the Cardinal operates on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with eastbound trains arriving in the morning, and westbound trains in the late afternoon and evening.
Amtrak began Cardinal service in 1977, originally operating between Chicago and Washington, D.C., with the name referencing the state bird of all six states then served by the train.
Delegates Folk, Howell, McGeehen, Paynter and Wilson voted against the bill, which goes to the Senate.
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