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Rail route in question

TRUCKEE, Calif. — The traffic problems throughout the Sierra Nevada have been well-documented over recent years as the region grows in popularity, but changes in the federal budget could soon add more cars to area roads.

Under President Trump's draft 2018 budget, the Department of Transportation would receive a decrease in funding of about 13 percent. Amtrak's long-distance trains would no longer receive federal aid, which would end the only passenger rail service to Reno and the Tahoe-Truckee region.

"The Budget terminates Federal support for Amtrak's long distance train services, which have long been inefficient and incur the vast majority of Amtrak's operating losses," according to the document's text.

The California Zephyr train runs from the San Francisco Bay Area to Chicago, stopping at Truckee along the way. It is the only passenger rail service in the town of Truckee, as well as the entire Lake Tahoe region, and Reno. With the elimination of the route, the nearest train station would be in Auburn, Calif.

"Having the train as an alternative means of transportation is extremely valuable to Truckee," said Truckee Chamber of Commerce President Lynn Saunders in an email.

"Often in snow storms with road closures, buses (Greyhound and Amtrak both run buses through here) are not able to get here so it turns out to be the only option for folks to get to their destination — or at least closer to make other connections," she said.

Interstate 80, the road motorists use to access the Reno-Tahoe-Truckee region, was frequently closed this winter while the area experienced record-breaking snowfall and the unsafe road conditions that came with the weather.

Saunders said, "The current administration's proposal to eliminate critical funding for the California Zephyr, without any outreach or communication with impacted communities is unacceptable. While the administration speaks to enhancing support for regional routes, no specific proposals are offered."

Data provided by Visit California, a nonprofit that works with the state's travel industry, shows that less than 3 percent of Lake Tahoe visitors arrive by train, with the leading travel modes being personal vehicle, rental car and airplane.

However, the proposed rail-service cuts come as the state of California is grappling with a $130-billion-backlog of necessary road repairs, and local decision-makers are struggling to manage the amount of traffic in the environmentally sensitive Lake Tahoe Basin.

State-sponsored Amtrak operations, like California's Capitol Corridor and Pacific Surfliner routes, would not be directly affected. However, the long-distance routes that would be cut do bring passengers to those routes.

"These trains connect our major regions, provide vital transportation to residents in rural communities and generate connecting passengers and revenue for our Northeast Corridor and State-Supported services," Amtrak President and CEO Charles Moorman said in a statement. "Amtrak is very focused on running efficiently — we covered 94 percent of our total network operating costs through ticket sales and other revenues in (Fiscal Year) 16 — but these services all require federal investment."

Amtrak reported record ridership and its lowest operating cost ever in 2016. Ridership on long-distance routes increased 3.7 percent from the previous year, while ridership on the California Zephyr increased 11 percent.

According to Amtrak reports, 14,675 rail passengers used the Truckee station in 2016—up from 10,846 in 2015, and 10,509 in 2014.

Not surprisingly, most of the passengers using the Truckee station come from the Bay Area, Reno and Sacramento, according to a report from the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

The California Zephyr is one of 15 long-distance Amtrak routes that would likely cease operations under the president's proposed budget. Without Amtrak's long-distance routes, 23 states would have no passenger rail service and there would be no way to travel by train across the country.