White-Trash Junction

Amtrak's station was supposed to be temporary -- a quarter-century ago

That said, the city is the project's main engine in terms of execution, says former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. The Boz offers a slew of seemingly strong excuses for why his administration failed to make much, if any, headway on the replacement station's development.

"When we first came into office, we were fighting the [April 1993] flood; then we're faced with airport expansion and TWA's bankruptcy -- you just had stuff popping off all over the place," says Bosley. "And the city's broke. Plus, we were building a stadium without a football team. Multimodal was not in the top five."

Being low man on the totem pole is a familiar spot for Amtrak, a federally mandated, heavily subsidized national rail system that was put into place in 1971 after America's private passenger-rail industry essentially threw in the towel, fiscally scorched by ever-cheaper airfares and the public's preference to drive or fly rather than ride the rails. Almost immediately, the agency began huffing and puffing about Union Station's inadequacy because it required trains to pull in and back out, an inconvenience that Amtrak was willing to overlook in bustling ports such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., but not in St. Louis.

The Amshack
Jennifer Silverberg
The Amshack

"Amtrak didn't want to back into Union Station; they wanted to pull through," says Shrout.

From the get-go, Amtrak "has always been the stepchild," says American Association of Railroaders president Rich Eichhorst, a perception he chalks up to a widespread congressional expectation that the system will one day return to its privatized roots.

"It's been a political football," says Eichhorst, a retired Hazelwood East High School social-studies teacher whose group of choo-choo aficionados is based in St. Louis. "On September 12 [the day after the 2001 terrorist attacks], the airlines can be in D.C. asking for millions and they get it, whereas for Amtrak, it's 'Oh, sorry.'"

Says Shrout: "The margins on Amtrak's operations are so tight. You squabble over $1.2 billion every year, while airlines are bailed out to the tune of billions of dollars."

Lately this struggle has gotten decidedly cutthroat, with Amtrak chief David Gunn threatening to shut the entire rail system down before prying the money from Congress. Still, as Hank Dittmar, executive director of Reconnecting America -- a Washington, D.C., think tank devoted to reviving rail service as a complement to roads and airports -- noted in a December 30 Washington Post op-ed piece that the annual appropriation "doesn't begin to pay the cost of railroad retirement, deferred maintenance and capital costs." Hence Amtrak is forced to rely heavily on partnerships with state and municipal governments to come up with the necessary dollars to keep its trains a-chuggin'.

But even operating dollars are difficult to scrounge up, as evidenced by the current conundrum in the Missouri Legislature over a $1.2 million supplemental budget request -- backed by Governor Bob Holden and MoDOT -- that would ensure that the number of Amtrak runs among St. Louis, Jefferson City and Kansas City are not cut from two round trips a day to one. Sharon Dashtaki, assistant administrator of railroads for MoDOT, says she's somewhat nervous about the extra appropriation's chances in the state capitol.

To hear state Senator Jon Dolan (R-2nd District), chairman of the transportation committee, tell it, she should be.

"MoDOT dropped a bit of a bombshell," says Dolan, who is quick to point out that he is not necessarily opposed to the supplemental request. "They didn't know money from last year was so tight. I grew up with mass transit, and I certainly understand how important it is. However, there are some tough decisions around the corner. If we need to reduce the schedule to one train, I think we can live."

Funding difficulties and all, Shrout is a true believer in the viability of improved rail service and facilities for St. Louis, drawing up technological and economic examples both home and abroad to slam home his points.

"Obviously the technology's there in Europe and Japan," adds Shrout. "Some trains in France run over 200 mph. The thing with train travel is, it brings people to the central city. Airports don't. Just as Washington Avenue and [the proposed] Ballpark Village are strategies for making downtown a better place, trains reinforce it as a destination."

None of these shimmering visions will coalesce properly, however, unless the Amshack is replaced with a permanent structure. As Bosley points out: "Somebody should have spiked the ball by now."

Eichhorst jokes about a security-related silver lining in failure.

"With so much concern over homeland security, we'd say, 'Keep the Amshack," he quips, "because every self-respecting terrorist would see the Amshack and think that the real station must be somewhere else."

That's funny, in a twisted sort of way. What is entirely devoid of humor is the fact that, after nearly 25 years, St. Louis' "temporary" Amshack is still standing.

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