LA GRANDE — Cook Memorial Library’s community room was probably as crowded late Saturday morning as the Union Pacific Railroad depot in La Grande was on Sept. 27, 1937, when people waited there for the train carrying President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to arrive.
FDR was asleep when his train stopped in La Grande around 12:30 a.m., but First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt appeared and spoke briefly to the crowd.
Few, if any, of the more than 100 people at La Grande’s library Saturday were the same ones who saw FDR’s train arrive in 1937, but many lived here when La Grande had passenger train service. The desire to see passenger rail service return to Northeast Oregon is what drew the crowd to Saturday’s Eastern Oregon Rail meeting.
Those in the audience included an individual who wrote on a display paper asking people why people want passenger train service: “I’m 79 — don’t know how much longer I can drive long distances. I need to travel monthly to Boise and Portland.”
This 79-year-old and many others learned how their dream could become reality during a presentation by the all-volunteer nonprofit Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates, with help from All Aboard Washington. The association would like to revive at least the Portland to Boise portion of the old Amtrak Pioneer route, which was discontinued in 1997 because of funding issues.
“We need your help if (the return of passenger train service) is going to happen. It will be a longer term effort,” said association President Joe Nuxoll of Eugene.
The need for passenger train service in Northeast Oregon is greater now than it was in 1997, Nuxoll said. A big reason: Greyhound now provides one scheduled bus route traveling east and one going west a day. Twenty-two years ago, at least two westbound and two eastbound buses made daily stops in La Grande.
Nuxoll would like to see as much of the Pioneer route, which ran from Portland to Salt Lake City, restored as possible. However, he said it is more realistic to start small by first attempting to restore the Portland to Boise route.
The Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates president said when people speak up to support Amtrak, they need to address one of its most common criticisms — that it’s subsidized. Nuxoll called that a weak and unfair argument because all modern transportation receives substantial government funding.
Virtually all highway construction and maintenance is funded by the government, he said, and airports receive significant levels of government assistance.
Nuxoll said the best way to get members of Congress to look into expanding Amtrak routes is for city councils and county commissions to pass resolutions supporting local and regional passenger rail service. When senators and members of Congress learn of the resolutions, they will know the people they represent want passenger trains to return.
Mark Meyer of Portland, an association board member, said he believes there is strong bipartisan support in Congress for expanding Amtrak.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Portland, supports Amtrak, according to Jeff Broderick, a graduate student at Portland State University who is earning a master’s degree in urban planning.
He noted that U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Eugene, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is in a good position to help boost Amtrak’s expansion.
Broderick, like others at Saturday’s meeting, emphasized the importance of communicating with legislators about restoring Amtrak service in Northeast Oregon.
“Your first step should be contacting your legislators,” he said.
Part of Amtrak’s problem, he said, is the weak mandate given to the rail service when the government created it in 1971. That makes getting large sums of money from Congress difficult.
“It is a fight for it to get funding from Congress each year,” Broderick said.
Many of those attending the meeting said they miss passenger train service, and the atmosphere in the library’s community room was one of hope and excitement.
“You have priceless enthusiasm,” said Louis Musso, a member of All Aboard Washington.