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Loss of Amtrak service shouldn't derail Dade City

Published October 29, 2004

If you want to catch a passenger train in Dade City, act fast. Amtrak ends its 14-year run of twice-daily service Sunday.

Beginning Monday, rail fans will have to take a bus to Lakeland to catch a southbound train or to Jacksonville for northbound travel. The end of the passenger service is tied to Amtrak ending its contract to carry mail for the U.S. Postal Service. Ocala, Waldo and Wildwood also are losing direct service.

Though Amtrak's service to Dade City never evolved into an economic boon envisioned by city leaders in 1990, it did help bring about a renaissance at the 1912 rail depot at the end of Meridian Avenue. Amtrak's return to the city helped rekindle interest in saving the dilapidated building that had fallen into disrepair after passenger service ended in 1968.

The city acquired the building in 1992 and applied successfully to put it on the National Historic Register two years later, making it the first building in Pasco County to make the list. The city refurbished it with $250,000 in state and federal grants and reopened in 1996.

City leaders correctly identified it as the unofficial gateway to downtown from the south and east. Unfortunately, the renovated building remained closed to Amtrak's passengers who were unable to purchase train tickets onsite. The red brick building is used as office space for CSX and as an annex for the Pioneer Florida Museum.

This week, Amtrak said an average of fewer than four people a day boarded trains in Dade City, or less than a third of what city leaders envisioned in 1990 when Amtrak resumed service amid big fanfare.

City Manager Harold Sample acknowledged to Times staff writer Chase Squires that losing the train service would have little effect on the city. From a practical standpoint, that is true.

The resumption of Amtrak service in 1990 came with overblown expectations. The city even proposed to use its share of Community Development Block Grant money, dollars intended to benefit low- and moderate-income people, for station amenities, thinking it would bolster ridership and the city's image to visitors. It was an ill-conceived idea considering the more pressing needs confronting a city with a high rate of poverty and a previous lawsuit for failing to provide the appropriate infrastructure in black neighborhoods.

Though the loss of Amtrak service to Dade City diminishes the melancholy notion frequently associated with train travel, there is little reason for remorse.

Dade City has a downtown restaurant and antique district that attracts tourists by the busloads. Since Amtrak resumed service, the city also has become home to nationally recognized steeplechase racing and bicycle events, a kumquat festival and other downtown events.

Even without twice-daily passenger trains, there is plenty about which Dade City can toot its whistle.

[Last modified October 28, 2004, 23:49:27]

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