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More on Ryan Zinke’s Vote to Derail Amtrak in Montana

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While I am still looking forward to the Montana press covering Representative Zinke’s vote to defund Amtrak in Montana, I thought I would do some additional research into Amtrak’s impact on the state and the reason for Zinke’s cynical vote.

Let’s start, though, with the obvious. Zinke did vote to end all federal Amtrak funding. Railway Age describes the amendment Zinke supported:

The amendment to eliminate all authorized Amtrak funding was introduced by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.); it failed by a vote of 147-272. “When word of the amendment to cut all Amtrak funding came out, thousands of train advocates from across the country came together to tell their representatives to support Amtrak,” said Harnish. “More than 1,000 of our supporters told their representatives to invest more on expanding passenger trains.”

Groups like the National Association of Railroad Passengers and Midwest High Speed Rail Association condemned the McClintock amendment as “the end of trains in America” and an effort to “decimate a rapidly growing service that millions of Americans depend on each year.”

No matter how hard Zinke’s Communication Director tries to spin his vote on the final bill, his vote for the McClintock Amendment was a vote to shutter every passenger train station in Montana, close a transportation corridor on the Hi-Line, and hurt the economy of the state. [pullquote] Zinke’s vote was a vote for the Heritage Foundation, not for Havre. [/pullquote]

While the latest study I could find about the economic impact of Amtrak in Montana was conducted by the state in 2003, it painted a picture of a service so critical to the state that Republicans Judy Martz and Dave Galt argued against Bush Administration plans to cut federal support for the program. In the end, the study concluded that not only was Amtrak responsible for $14 million in economic benefit to the state, but critical for a rural, sparsely-populated state like Montana. The study’s executive summary noted that the Empire Builder route is “an essential transportation service for which there is, by and large in most of the Montana communities served, no reasonable alternative.”

Those economic imperatives and practical needs have not abated today. In fact, Montana Public Radio reports that the boom in the Bakken is increasing demand for the Empire Builder, and we all know that Representative Zinke loves that Bakken crude.

What’s most interesting about Zinke’s vote to end Amtrak is the town in Montana that benefits most from it: his home town of Whitefish. Writing in 2010, the Flathead Beacon’s Myers Reece discussed how important the Empire Builder is to the community and the entire Flathead Valley:

Schustrom said Amtrak also brings money to the valley in the form of passersby, in addition to tourists visiting the area as their destination. People traveling elsewhere, perhaps to Seattle from Minneapolis, get off at the Whitefish station and spend money before continuing on their way.”It’s an important connector between big markets,” Schustrom said.

It’s pretty difficult to understand why Representative Zinke would vote to end critical passenger rail service for the people on the Hi-Line and in his hometown in particular. Since 2003, we certainly haven’t developed alternative means of travel for the elderly of that area or for communities not served by the incredibly expensive Essential Air Service. Had the McClintock Amendment he supported passed, it would have represented a real hardship for many people—and a reduction in the tourism industry which is so critical for the state.

So why did Representative Zinke vote to end Amtrak service? To appease the kind of national, right-wing, anti-tax groups a candidate needs to impress to get campaign funding for bids at higher office. Zinke’s vote was a vote for the Heritage Foundation, not for Havre.

That he subsequently voted for the larger bill hardly exonerates the Representative; it demonstrates his lack of consistency and principle. Jim Loomis, at the Trains & Travel blog, argues that Zinke’s vote was exactly the kind of cynical game playing I suggested on Friday, an effort to tell one group of voters that he opposed Amtrak subsidies and another that he supported them:

One of my colleagues on the NARP board of directors, a veteran observer of these complex political machinations, has a very plausible theory to explain those completely contradictory votes. He thinks the votes were cast by members who want to have it both ways. If they get an email complaining about Amtrak, they can cite their recorded vote on McClintock’s amendment. But if a pro-Amtrak constituent contacts them, they’ll proudly point to their vote on the PRRIA bill.

Anyone who followed the 2014 campaign for Congress should know that Mr. Zinke cannot be trusted to hold a position for longer than it is politically expedient, but to vote to hurt the economies of small Montana towns before cynically claiming to support them just hours later is a new low. Let’s hope the press in Montana demands some answers.

Update: I looked for this the other day but didn’t find it. Want more evidence that Zinke’s vote to defund Amtrak was a terrible vote? Just ask Representative Zinke, whose office issued this press release:

“Sound infrastructure is critical to Montana and is a fundamental role of government,” said Rep. Zinke.

Given that position, why in the world would Zinke have voted against rail in Montana?

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we\'d certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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