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No light at end of Amtrak tunnel for passenger rail enthusiasts in South Dakota

A proposed national expansion by Amtrak, bolstered by a Biden-proposed infrastructure plan, would hook up Duluth, Eau Claire, Iowa City, and every state in the lower-48 for passenger rail service, except for South Dakota.

FILE PHOTO: An Amtrak train is parked at the platform inside New York's Penn Station, the nation's busiest train hub, which will be closing tracks for repairs causing massive disruptions to commuters in New York City
An Amtrak train is parked at the platform inside New York's Penn Station NY on July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

PIERRE, S.D. — It wasn't an early April Fool's joke.

Or an oversight, like when Rand McNally left the Dakotas off of the world atlas.

On Wednesday, March 31, when Amtrak, the federally subsidized passenger rail service announced potential expansion plans in the wake of President Joe Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure proposal , the map showed every single one of the lower-48 states hooked up to Amtrak.

Save one.

Even Wyoming — which currently joins South Dakota as one of only two continental states not on the train line — would be slated under this hypothetical plan to get a spur from Denver to Cheyenne.

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But not South Dakota.

"It doesn't feel good to go from being one of the only states in the lower 48 to being the only (without rail service)," said U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, South Dakota's lone congressman. "But this is why we as a delegation are calling to invest in infrastructure that does help rural America, such as roads and bridges as opposed to transit and passenger rail."

Gov. Kristi Noem even took to Twitter to chide Biden's earmark for Amtrak, saying, "It gives $80 billion to Amtrak to build rail lines to every state EXCEPT Alaska, Hawaii, or SOUTH DAKOTA."

No word on the cost of rail from the mainland to Hawaii , but South Dakota's feasibility with rail may actually be more complicated than that tweet lets on.

A spokesman for Amtrak, Marc Magliari, told Forum News Service the map is only "aspirational" and reflects real interest expressed by states to fund Amtrak. The state would need, after all, some buy-in, including up to 80 cents on the dollar.

And about Wyoming?

"There's an entity called the Front Range (Rail) Commission ," Magliari said. "And they've been looking at front-range service, and they've been hearing from people in Cheyenne and Pueblo."

There's also some history with South Dakota and Amtrak money.

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In the mid-2000s, Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar , then-chairman of the House Transportation committee, asked federal investigators to audit the state of South Dakota's use of $23 million in rail-enhancement monies under a 1997 tax relief act . The money was to be spent on passenger rail, but South Dakota and five other states then without passenger rail had to find other ways to spend the money.

Rumors broke that South Dakota may've spent the money on a state airplane.

But a subsequent report in 2009 cleared the state's name, saying it was "less likely" the funds were used "improperly" as state dollars purchased the plane. The state simply used the $23 million to replenish funds for aeronautics, rail, and highway maintenance.

In a 1997 interview in the Rapid City Journal, then-Sen. Tom Daschle lamented the narrow use of the $23 million, chiding House Republicans for beating back an amendment of his to give states more flexibility in their spending.

"It is only fair that those six states that don't have Amtrak service, including South Dakota, can improve their transportation infrastructure as well," Daschle said at the time.

Almost 25 years later, those states may soon be three.

Still, the absence of even a connecting bus line — from, say, Omaha to Sioux Falls or Cheyenne to Rapid City — miffs Rick Mills, the curator at the South Dakota State Railroad Museum in Hill City.

Mills said the last passenger rail passed out of the state when the train left Edgemont, S.D., for Billings, Mont., in 1969. But he isn't holding his breath for a glittering Amtrak with dining car and cushioned seats to roll into town anytime soon.

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"Honestly, the cost to the state of South Dakota to update a line for connecting service to Sioux Falls or Rapid City is probably cost prohibitive," Mills said. "It's not feasible."

But one can dream.

And, sure, any passenger rail enthusiast's plan to connect Sioux Falls and Rapid may upend one of the state's great motorist-heavy stops: Wall Drug.

But the state's congressman has a fix for that.

"They could still serve those Wall Drug maple donuts in the dining car," Johnson said.

Related Topics: TRANSPORTATIONSOUTH DAKOTA
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