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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Ridership Drops On Oregon Trains As Officials Ponder Funding Options

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network
An ODOT sponsored Amtrak Cascades train pulls away from the station in Oregon City.

Passenger rail advocates came to the Oregon capitol Monday to ask lawmakers to preserve state support for Amtrak trains.

The funding debate comes as ridership on the Portland-to-Eugene trains is dropping.

Last year, the Oregon Department of Transportation changed the schedules of two of the daily trains it sponsors. The agency called the result a disappointment. Ridership fell 15 percent.

"We did not see the ridership increases that we thought that we would see providing that service,” said Hal Gard, director of ODOT's Rail Division. “We are actively working with Amtrak to find out why didn't we see it, why didn't we get the return that we expected to see."

Lawmakers said there are no immediate plans to discontinue the service. But they want the agency to find ways to fund it that don't depend on the state's general fund.

Due to the ongoing budget negotiations, passenger rail advocacy groups alerted their members that a potential shutdown of Oregon’s Cascades rail service was imminent. But Democratic Representative David Gomberg, who co-chairs the budget committee that writes ODOT's budget, said, "I don't know anybody here that wants to shut down the program. But we're looking at the total dollars involved."

ODOT said the subsidy for each Cascades passenger in Oregon is an average of $69 per person. Gomberg said he and other lawmakers on the panel want to see that number lower.

"How do we make this program more self-sustaining?" he said. "How do we make it something closer to being break-even, and encourage more people to use the service?"

ODOT said the two daily round-trip trains between Portland and Eugene are operating at around 30 percent capacity. One morning train averages fewer than 30 riders per day. The agency said ridership totals in 2014 were also affected by increased bus competition and low gasoline prices.