All Aboard Northwest stops in La Grande to advocate for passenger rail

Aug. 14—LA GRANDE — All Aboard Northwest rolled into La Grande on Saturday, Aug. 13, to host a Train Trek meeting at Cook Memorial Library.

The stop in La Grande is part of a larger series of talks happening across Oregon, Idaho and Utah to gather support for the return of passenger trains to the Pacific Northwest.

"We look at trains as part of a world class transportation network, that is a seamless way to get people from here to there," said Charles Hamilton, vice president and treasurer of AANW.

Importance of passenger trains

Around 30% of Americans do not drive and that number is growing, according to AANW. Many people cannot drive due to age — too young or too old — or disability.

Owning a car is expensive — initial purchase, yearly maintenance, insurance, price of gas — so socioeconomic status can be a factor.

Many people live in places where seasonal weather, such as snow or ice, impact their ability to drive. There also are people who choose not to drive due to the environmental impact.

"We'll always need cars in rural areas and elsewhere, but we really need to ensure that communities of all sizes can participate in mobility that works for everyone," AANW President Daniel Bilka said.

In November 2021, the U.S. House passed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which allocated $66 billion in funding for Amtrak's repair backlog.

This would allow for improvements to existing passenger rail networks and potentially kick-start new projects that would allow passenger rail service across the nation.

Meeting attendees pointed out areas where they believed a passenger rail could have a positive impact for Northeastern Oregon — winter weather, medical access and college attendance.

"If you want to go to Whitman College in Walla Walla or if you want to go to Eastern Oregon University, how do you get here if you're not driving? And what does that do to the quality and ability of that school to survive?" Hamilton said.

Economy, environment and equity

According to AANW, passenger rail is an ideal option for addressing what they call the "three Es'" — economy, environment and equity.

Passenger trains provide benefits to the economy and taxpayers. On average, overnight visitors traveling to Eastern Oregon spend $102 per day as a solo tourist and $282 per day as a group, according to the Economic Impact of Travel in Oregon 2021 report. Easy travel options help strengthen local economies, according to AANW.

"Travel means business," Bilka said.

This also is the case for rural communities. For example, Meridian, Mississippi — which has a population of 39,000 people — invested $7.5 million in a new Amtrak Station. This has brought $200 million into a three-block radius of the station during the last 20 years.

Trains also can provide more mobility for significantly less cost. During the presentation, Bilka referenced a recent decision by the state of Virginia to invest in a new statewide passenger and freight network rather than expanded highways.

Adding one additional lane to 52 miles of highway was estimated to cost $12.5 billion and was not expected to reduce road congestion, so the state opted to invest in rail instead.

The rail project is estimated at $3.7 billion — a third of the cost.

Rail transport provides environmental benefits, such as emitting less greenhouse gases, increased fuel efficiency and reducing highway pollution caused by congestion.

Lastly, passenger rail lines help with equity. There is a large portion of the United States that is not supported by passenger rail.

Bilka joked about Amtrak's "Connect US" map because it does not really connect the U.S. if not all states — including most of Oregon — are not serviced.

A common critique

A common concern raised in conversations about passenger trains is whether the mode of transportation should exist if it cannot run without government subsidies. Many critics point to the fact that Amtrak operates at a net loss.

"If you think about it, every form of transport on the planet is subsidized one way or the other," Hamilton said. "So, the question is how is it subsidized and to what extent? Consider how much money you as taxpayers put into highways, how much money you put into the air traffic control system, you put into all the other forms of transportation."

According to Hamilton and Bilka, the purpose of Amtrak is not to make money, but to provide a service.

Next steps

The Greater Northwest Passenger Rail Summit is scheduled for Aug. 22-23 in Billings, Montana. At this meeting, the Federal Railroad Association will share how states can apply for funding. Bilka and Hamilton said this is the time for communities to start advocating for passenger rail access in their communities by reaching out to local and state governments.

The Oregon Department of Transportation will need to submit an expression of interest to stay informed about the process and apply for the grant funding when it becomes available, according to AANW.

"This year is an amazing opportunity because, again, there is $66 billion on the table. And they're all going to be sent out in grant forms, which means local states, communities, tribes, interstate organizations, have to apply for it," Hamilton said. "And we know that other states are going to be applying, so the first thing you need to do is you need to be asking your elected officials, specifically your governor, your state DOT, your state legislatures, to submit an expression of interest."

Isabella Crowley is a reporter for The Observer. Contact her at 541-624-6014 or