Amtrak ambition: The lonely quest to break SD’s resistance to passenger rail

Madison man says ‘short-termism’ holds state back

By: - Friday January 19, 2024 5:15 pm

Amtrak ambition: The lonely quest to break SD’s resistance to passenger rail

Madison man says ‘short-termism’ holds state back

By: - 5:15 pm

Travelers board an Amtrak train at Union Station on Nov. 22, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Travelers board an Amtrak train at Union Station on Nov. 22, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

You can’t reach Mount Rushmore by passenger rail. Or the Badlands. Or Wall Drug. 

Or just about anywhere else in South Dakota. It’s one of two states in the contiguous U.S. without Amtrak passenger train service – and the only one to have never had it.  

Pennington County Commissioner Lloyd LaCroix would like to see that change. Rail access to West River tourist destinations is one reason LaCroix and his fellow commissioners signed off on a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration last August, urging consideration of a working group to study passenger rail in South Dakota. 

“The location of Rapid City, along with not having high-capability rail service, has constrained the economic opportunity of the region. Railroad investments are needed at large to benefit both freight and passenger services,” the letter reads.

LaCroix is the second Pennington County commission chair to ink such a letter in recent years. The first came in 2021, the year Amtrak released a conceptual “Connect US” map without a South Dakota stop. Amtrak, a stylized squashing together of “America” and “track,” is the brand name for the passenger rail services of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Service runs between cities and across state lines in 46 of the Lower 48 states. 

The Sturgis city manager and head of the Grant County Economic Development Corporation have also sent letters of support for passenger rail, but LaCroix isn’t holding his breath for a South Dakota Amtrak station ribbon cutting.

“We probably won’t see it in our lifetime,” LaCroix told South Dakota Searchlight.

Passenger rail advocate pushes for consideration

LaCroix isn’t alone in his pessimism. Skepticism appears alongside the first mention of passenger rail in the state Department of Transportation’s latest state rail plan:

“Outside of the advocacy sphere, there is doubt among other stakeholders as to whether South Dakota has the appropriate population density to justify investments in developing and operating passenger rail service.”

Dan Bilka of All Aboard Northwest. (courtesy Dan Bilka)
Dan Bilka of All Aboard Northwest. (Courtesy of Dan Bilka)

If the South Dakota “advocacy sphere” were a globe, Madison’s Dan Bilka would be the Atlas beneath it. He’s the one who convinced Pennington County commissioners to write the letter of support. He’s also behind the Sturgis and Grant County letters.

Bilka is co-founder and leader of All Aboard Northwest, a nonprofit with three board members and what Bilka describes as “hundreds” of “interested parties” who engage rail authorities, state and local leaders and anyone else who’ll listen about righting what they view as a historical wrong.

There’s a conversation taking place, Bilka said, and South Dakota should be a part of it.

“Congress has directed the Federal Railroad Administration to look at not only former Amtrak long distance routes, but also the potential for new Amtrak long distance routes,” Bilka said. 

To Bilka, there’s never been a better time to reopen the book on a subject many in the state closed years ago – or never opened to begin with. 

The 15-year “Connect US” expansion roadmap from 2021 that omitted South Dakota knocked at least some dust off that book’s cover. South Dakota social media circles lit up over the snub, even prompting a snarky tweet from Gov. Kristi Noem decrying the absence of South Dakota, Alaska and Hawaii.

That map of possible futures was not a binding plan, but Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari said it did what it was meant to do: start conversations.

Seven months after the map appeared, President Joe Biden signed his massive Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law, which set aside billions of dollars for rail projects. It also set aside $15 million for the Federal Railroad Administration to conduct an Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study to look at routes 750 miles long or longer. 

“Connect US wasn’t really very formal,” Magliari said. “It was a vision of ‘here’s some ideas,’ which we think sparked some of this funding that’s come through.”

Cash for considering rail

Long-term routes are funded by Amtrak at no cost to states, at least after states pitch in to help build stations. The infrastructure law also set aside money to study expansions to shorter, state-supported Amtrak lines – called the “enhanced network.” That network includes routes less than 750 miles, typically sharing tracks with freight rail and relying on freight rail operators to serve as dispatchers.

The infrastructure law offers states 90 cents on the dollar for the setup of new state-supported routes, Magliari said, and “there’s never been that kind of federal operating support before.”

States that lay out plans for passenger rail and support from municipalities are key factors in future service decisions on the federal side, Bilka said. 

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Wyoming hopes to soon see its name removed from the list of states without service, announcing a formal pursuit of a line to connect Cheyenne and Denver. 

Bilka said it took years of stakeholder engagement to make that happen.

South Dakotans should be willing to be a part of the conversation, too, he said.

“We’re the only state in the contiguous 48 states that’s never had Amtrak, and not for the lack of need or viability, but due to the choices and forces that predated Amtrak,” Bilka said. 

SD service ended before Amtrak

Those “choices and forces” were largely animated by one consideration: cash. There’s a lot of federal rail money floating around at the moment, but it’s nowhere near enough for South Dakota to overcome its five-decade dearth of passenger rail, said Rick Mills, historian and curator of the South Dakota State Railroad Museum.

Mills’ museum is a stone’s throw from the 1880 Train, a popular steam-powered tourist hauler that runs between Hill City and Keystone and represents the single remaining passenger rail line in South Dakota. 

The Amtrak national network. (courtesy Amtrak)
The Amtrak national network. (Courtesy of Amtrak)

Freight rail can cost as much as a million dollars per mile for new lines, Mills said.

Passenger rail costs far more. North Carolina got a $1.9 billion grant last month for a passenger line less than 19 miles long. The 171-mile Central Valley segment in California could cost as much as $35 billion.

Mills’ professional career has been built around unabashed, lifelong adoration of all things rail – he wrote a book on state railroad history, after all – and he’d love to see passenger service in his home state.

That doesn’t mean he’s expecting it. Not at prices like that and an expectation of matching funds from a state with no modern history of passenger rail support. 

It’s realism, he said, not pessimism.

“Unless things would incredibly change, in some form that I can’t even envision, there’s no way that South Dakota will ever really be able to have a functional Amtrak system the way it’s designed right now,” Mills said. “It would take an incredible change of heart, and finances, and everything else.” 

There are myriad reasons for that, Mills said. 

Cost is the main one, but even that barrier is couched in South Dakota history. That it’s the only state in the 48 contiguous states to never have Amtrak service is a measure of economics, geography and timing.

The state’s last passenger rail line shut down in 1969, just a few years before Amtrak launched in 1971. That last South Dakota passenger line was a short leg on a route connecting Lincoln, Nebraska, with Billings, Montana. It stopped in Edgemont, in the southwest corner of the state. Rapid City’s last passenger train departed in 1960; for  Sioux Falls it was 1965. Those were shorter routes. The only transcontinental service through South Dakota ran through Aberdeen, then across the northern part of the state.

“That was never the most popular,” Mills said.

Long before the 1970s, Mills said, it had become abundantly clear that passenger rail couldn’t sustain itself. It was too expensive, too many people preferred the interstate highway system, airplanes and buses. 

That’s the reason Amtrak exists. In the beginning, the service’s national network leaned in to existing, operational rail lines as a way to subsidize and preserve service. Without a passenger line to glom on to, Amtrak’s original map left South Dakota out.

Even so, and even without much hope for future service, Mills and other railroad buffs admire Bilka’s organization.

“He comes into my office and starts talking, and he almost has me convinced,” Mills said. “He’s got the support of all of us.”

Wall of skepticism

The hill to climb to get beyond “almost” is more like a mountain in South Dakota.

No members of the state’s congressional delegation responded on the record to a request from South Dakota Searchlight for comments on passenger rail service. 

The State Department of Transportation, which works with the state rail board on the writing of the state rail plan, would only answer questions over email.

DOT spokesperson Julie Stevenson pointed to a Federal Railroad Administration Midwest Regional Rail Planning Study from 2021 as proof that passenger rail won’t work for South Dakota. 

The state participated in that study, Stevenson wrote, which was “built on current rail planning efforts” in 12 states, according to the FRA. Two state DOT employees were listed as study participants in the 198-page document. The words “South Dakota” appear 10 times  – twice to list the names of those DOT employees, a few times where the document lists the states within the study area, once in a section listing states with bus service, and once on a graphic showing states “generally not engaged in planning service.”

Suggested expansion routes presented during a Midwest regional meeting of the Federal Railroad Administration Long-Distance Rail Service Study. (courtesy Federal Railroad Administration)
Suggested expansion routes presented during a Midwest regional meeting of the Federal Railroad Administration Long-Distance Rail Service Study. (Courtesy of Federal Railroad Administration)

Stevenson’s email listed reasons passenger rail doesn’t make sense for the state: a lack of infrastructure up to passenger rail standards, no freight rail operator willing to partner up for passenger service, public opposition to a noisy service that might disrupt car travel, not enough federal funding, operational cost concerns and a low demand.

“Since SD is a state with low population densities, and there is insufficient demand for passenger rail services,” Stevenson wrote. “Therefore, SD is hesitant to invest in a system that might not attract enough ridership to justify the costs.”

Low population isn’t exclusive to South Dakota, though, and advocates point to other states as proof that the “low demand” argument is flimsy. North Dakota has fewer people, but has Amtrak service on a transcontinental line used by more than 300,000 people in 2022. Wyoming has had passenger service in the past and aims to again. Its population is lower than either of the Dakotas.

When given the opportunity to embrace passenger rail, South Dakota turned away. In 1997, federal seed money was made available for passenger rail in South Dakota, but the state declined to start the process. Instead, it spent the money on other forms of transportation, Stevenson said, because “the state was not desirous of passenger rail.” 

The state spent approximately $5.8 million on transit, $9.5 million for railroads, $3.8 million for airports and $11.4 million for road construction projects using the 1997 funds.

Since then, the state has received “special transportation circumstances” grants each year from the federal Department of Transportation due to its lack of passenger rail. The state uses that money for things like track maintenance and upgrades, capacity building for freight rail, bridge rehabilitation and safety improvements at rail crossings.

If the state were to opt in to passenger rail, Stevenson wrote, it “would lose its Special Transportation Circumstances (STC) funding.”

Even the state’s Department of Tourism toes the state line on passenger rail.

A request for an interview with a tourism official about its possible value to the state’s visitor industry was met with an email saying that the state DOT would be a better source for information. Katlyn Svendsen, a spokesperson for the state’s “Travel South Dakota” website, also wrote a few sentences that mirrored the DOT’s earlier response, almost to the letter.

“Because of South Dakota’s low population density, there is insufficient demand for passenger rail services across South Dakota,” Svendsen wrote. “Travel South Dakota rarely, if ever, receives inquiries or requests to travel by rail through our state.”

Making the case

None of that has deterred Bilka. South Dakota was not the focus of the Midwest rail study cited by the state, Bilka said, and relying on it instead of conducting an independent study shows how little work has been done to investigate claims of low demand. 

He noted that the state rail plan’s references to passenger rail, though expanded from its previous iteration, pointed to studies done without much help from South Dakota.

“All the plans or work referenced in the SD State Rail Plan was work conducted by other entities,” Bilka said. “They did not even include a potential ‘passenger rail vision,’ even though I strongly advocated for them to.”

Bilka also pointed to comments on the possibility of a Sioux Falls connection presented during passenger rail study meetings, and to the Midwest Regional Rail Planning Study’s mention of Sioux Falls as a city that could feasibly sustain service. That study is the one cited by the state as evidence of passenger rail’s impracticality.

An Amtrak engine moves through a rail yard on the southern edge of downtown March 13, 2009 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
An Amtrak engine moves through a rail yard on the southern edge of downtown March 13, 2009, in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As to costs, he said the state uses federal matching funds for other transportation projects. Freight rail, small-market airports in cities like Watertown and highways all require significant taxpayer funds, he said.

“No form of transportation pays for itself,” he said. 

He also said that passenger rail’s up-front costs and operational debts are worth it for the public because it can spur economic development. Leaders are too often focused on the wrong costs, he argues. 

“Sometimes our elected officials fall into the pitfall of short-termism,” Bilka said. “They see the sticker shock, rather than the slow drip of how much more we’re paying by not having services. And that’s my biggest argument when people scoff, ‘Oh, it’s gonna cost too much to upgrade the rail lines for passenger rail services.’ Like ‘no, we’re losing more money by not having them.’” 

He’s used to this kind of call-and-response exercise. Pushing back on what he describes as a lack of vision and a “pennywise but pound-foolish” fear of losing annual grant stipends is part of the job.

It’s not his only role, of course. As an invited guest to Amtrak regional study meetings, he’s talked about unserved rural and tribal lands in South Dakota ripe for passenger rail service and existing rights-of-way that could help connect them. 

Do a Google search for his name, and the fourth result is an opinion piece on passenger rail posted by the Rapid City Journal. Just below that search result is a link to a 13-page letter Bilka penned to the South Dakota Rail Authority in 2019, when he served as the South Dakota representative for the Washington, D.C.-based Rail Passengers Association. The letter urged the authority to consider the future with an eye to the experience of the Upper Midwest states connected to Amtrak’s Empire Builder line, which runs through Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana to connect Chicago to Seattle.

That line, with North Dakota stops in Fargo, Grand Forks, Devil’s Lake, Minot, Rugby and Williston, “is worth $327 million every year to the economies of the states it serves – over five times the cost to operate the train,” Bilka wrote.

In addition to traveling to talk rail during regional meetings and ferreting out local support from any South Dakota organization willing to listen, Bilka regularly reaches out to media organizations – including South Dakota Searchlight – to spread the passenger rail message.

Since 2019, he’s been quoted in stories from Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.

Starting from nothing

Does he ever get sick of answering the same questions? 

Not really, he said, even though the persistence of those questions can frustrate him. The repetition helps him fine-tune his answers; the varying forums where he offers them helps him adjust his emphasis for different audiences. He’s lost track of the number of times he’s responded to what he calls the “bologna” population density argument, but said it’s well into the hundreds at this point.

Overall, if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing (as frustrating as it can be at times) no one else would,” Bilka said. “I’m not cynical enough to say that areas don’t deserve consideration for service if their elected officials fail to honestly look at these opportunities beyond the flawed assumptions someone made decades ago.”

Magliari, the Amtrak spokesman, is quite familiar with the work of Bilka’s All Aboard Northwest, and said it’s the kind of work citizens of a state need to put in if they want to put themselves on a map. Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration aren’t out to fill in a map with new rail lines for their own sake. They get involved with passenger rail in states that want it.

Drumming up support, attending meetings and calling reporters is the way to convince people that passenger rail is possible, he said.

“He’s doing the right things,” Magliari said of Bilka’s work. 

Mills, of the railroad museum, would be happy if the state started small. He suggests a partnership with bus lines that would allow passengers to buy a dual-purpose bus ticket to an Amtrak station in another state, where they could board a train.

There are partnerships like that out there already, including in Wyoming. If the state were to offer some support for that initial step, Mills could see a chance for the state to get some help through the grant funding that will continue to flow from the federal DOT for the next few years. 

“That would be at least a way to start the conversation,” Mills said. 

 

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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

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