JEFFERSON CITY — After two years of depleted ridership numbers, Missouri lawmakers are once again considering slashing Amtrak service between St. Louis and Kansas City.
Under a budget proposal that could be voted on by a House committee this week, passenger rail service would be cut to one round-trip train ride per day, down from its current twice-daily service.
The Missouri River Runner carries passengers 283 miles across the state’s midsection, with stops in eight communities, including Kirkwood, Washington, Hermann and Jefferson City.
Typically, about 172,000 people ride the train each year. Flooding along the Missouri River temporarily stopped train service in 2019. The pandemic further eroded ridership numbers in 2020.
But, in asking for money to continue twice-daily service, the Missouri Department of Transportation believes the trains will make a comeback in 2021.
“The continuation of passenger rail service is important as Missouri continues to provide alternative transportation options to travelers and promote statewide economic development,” the agency said in its budget request.
Talk of a reduction comes as Missouri and other states are awaiting billions of dollars in new federal relief money, some of which could go to public transit. It’s not clear if some of that money could be used to preserve current service levels.
A day after the cut was floated by House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, the head of MoDOT pledged to work to keep two trains intact.
“As the transportation agency, MoDOT supports all mobility options for travelers and supports two trains per day, thus giving a round-trip option between Kansas City and St. Louis. State-sponsored Amtrak service in Missouri, like in other states, is subject to legislative appropriation and gubernatorial approval. As the budget is discussed, MoDOT will continue to provide information to the Legislature on the value of this transportation option for Missourians,” MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said.
Lawmakers and governors have routinely short-changed funding for Amtrak. In 2017, for example, former Gov. Eric Greitens cut $500,000 in funding for the service.
More than a year ago, the station in a historic, state-owned building in Jefferson City had to be closed for structural purposes. Passengers now wait for trains in a portable building, but Gov. Mike Parson’s administration wants the temporary station to be moved.
The state also hasn’t paid its full share for the trains since at least 2010 and owes an estimated $3 million. It would have been more, but some of the so-called “arrears” have been paid down using federal pandemic relief dollars.
MoDOT asked for $23 million to fully fund the service this year, but Parson agreed to spend $9.8 million.
The House version directs service to be reduced to one train per day.
Despite the penny-pinching, Amtrak said the River Runner ranks high in customer satisfaction.
Of 46 routes nationwide, the River Runner was ranked 11th best among nationwide routes in 2019 for comfort, on-time performance, food and other amenities.
Current ticket prices show it would cost about $72 for a round-trip from St. Louis to Kansas City in early June.
National ranking data is not available for 2020 because Amtrak halted data collection because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
MoDOT has long argued that service on the stretch cannot be completely discontinued because the state would have to repay Amtrak for the cost of station upgrades.
The legislation is House Bill 4.