Southern Illinois airport to see flights dropped if president’s proposed budget passes

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget seeks to cut the Department of Transportation’s budget by 13 percent, eliminating the Essential Air Service Program, Amtrak’s long distance routes and the TIGER grant program.

With flights many of you take to get to and from southern Illinois on the chopping block if the Essential Air Service Program is cut, airport leaders joined other transportation leaders in a meeting with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois Friday morning in hopes of keeping those cuts from shutting services down.

Southern Illinois University student Dakota Lindsay spoke with me while he was getting ready for his flights home to Colorado Friday afternoon. "So, it’s tons of flights, but hopefully we’ll get home sometime tonight," Lindsay said. It’s his first time flying out of Marion, but he said it’s a much more convenient way to get to St. Louis than driving.

"Definitely, I mean it’s a one-hour flight to get there versus a two hour drive depending on traffic. You won’t hit any deer on a plane," he said.

Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois Director Doug  Kimmel said the president’s proposed budget eliminates the federal funding they and other airports rely on. 

"It is an economic necessity for our region," Kimmel said. He said they had planned to get the newly built airport terminal up and running to the point where they no longer relied on federal funding to operate, but he said they’re not there yet.

Thousands of people go to Marion to fly out of the airport every year. But without the $2 million that comes into the airport through the Essential Air Service Program, Kimmel said they wouldn’t be able to afford to keep Cape Air there in town. He said they’d need to reduce the number of flights and raise the cost of tickets, which would reduce ridership. Kimmel said that cycle would continue until the company pulled the plug on flying out of the area.

"It would quite literally take away daily air transportation service from our region into the national air transportation system. There’d be no flights," Kimmel said.

Joining other transportation and community leaders meeting with Durbin Friday, Kimmel and others discussed the negative impact that and other cuts would have in southern Illinois. Durbin said the proposed budget puts a target on southern Illinois’ back, already weakened by years without a state budget.

Durbin said he’ll fight the budget, but people in the area need to stand up and reach out to their local congresspersons to fight for transportation. Many parts of southern Illinois voted for Trump, Durbin said, with the promise of $1 trillion in infrastructure investments. He said it’s time Congress and voters held the president to that promise, instead of accepting deep cuts.

"I hope some voters who supported him will ask the hard questions of the congressmen and others. ‘What are we going to do now to keep that promise we heard from Donald Trump?’" Durbin said. He said if voters don’t demand change from their leaders, it’s likely people like Lindsay will find themselves driving to their destinations instead.

The president’s proposed budget would also cut Amtrak’s long distance routes, which provide a route to and from school for many college students, including those at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

More than 100,000 people rode the Amtrak train to and from Carbondale last year, according to Amtrak statistics. The number of riders is growing there and around the country, a trend Amtrak officials predict will continue.

The proposed cuts would eliminate 15 long distance train routes around the country, including the popular City of New Orleans train route that picks up in Chicago and passes through Carbondale daily.

Amtrak said if those cuts go through, it would take away train services in 27 states, preventing travelers from using the popular routes.

"It would be a devastating blow to lots of cities and towns and states across the country if all Amtrak services went away. So, we’ll work with Senator Durbin and his colleagues in the Congress on that, and hopefully it won’t come to be," Amtrak Government Affairs Senior Director Ray Lang said.

The Saluki and Illini routes running through Carbondale would not be affected by any cuts. The routes are funded through a state contract with the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Durbin said the president’s proposed budget cuts target the train and air transportation people in southern Illinois use and rely on. He said if you want to see those services stick around, you need to pick up a phone and contact your local lawmaker.

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