A regional coalition that formed 25 years ago to save railroad service across 14 counties in northern Kansas is preparing to transfer ownership of more than 400 miles of short-line track to a Florida company that has been operating the railroad.

The Mid-States Port Authority was formed in the early 1980s to keep the rail service from folding after the Rock Island Railroad went bankrupt.

Mid-States paid $19 million for the tracks — $1 million in private funds and $18 million from a loan obtained from the Federal Railroad Administration — on April 30, 1984.

On the same day, Mid-States entered into a lease-to-purchase agreement with Kyle Railroad, which is owned by Florida-based RailAmerica, to operate the tracks.

Under that deal, Kyle had the option to buy the rail line for a nominal sum on June 1, 2009, which is Monday.

“It was probably the greatest economic endeavor in the state of Kansas in the 1980s,” said Goodland resident John Golden, who has been chairman of Mid-States since 1987 and one of the authority’s founding members. “It’s impacted a lot of people for a long time.”

The railroad is important to both shippers and local governments as a shipping lifeline in the northern part of the state.

According to Kyle Railroad’s Web site, in 2007 the service moved more than 21,000 rail cars loaded with wheat, soybeans, milo, alcohols, siding asphalt and roofing granules along its 600 miles of track from north-central Kansas to eastern Colorado.

Kyle general manager Todd Bjornstad said the transition in ownership is expected to go smoothly because the amount of time Kyle, now headquartered in Phillipsburg, has been operating Mid-States’ tracks.

That wasn’t the case after Rock Island went bankrupt in 1979. Community leaders along the route were afraid that without the railroad, grain elevators would be shut down and rural towns would whither away. On top of that, companies such a Phillipsburg roofing firm also depended on short rail to stay in business.

“We had to find a way to save this railroad,” said Doyle Rahjes, a Phillipsburg-area farmer and founding member of the authority. “If we didn’t, a lot of people were going to be hurt.”

Late Phillipsburg newspaper Publisher McDill “Huck” Boyd led a group that petitioned the Legislature in 1982 to allow it to form a port authority with the power to issue bonds to help purchase the railroad. Final payments on the bonds, which paid off the $18 million Railroad Administration loan, were made earlier this year.

“It wasn’t just about moving the grain, although that was a big part of it,” said Ron Harding, who was Chamber of Commerce director for Goodland and Sherman County at the time of authority’s purchase of the tracks. “We couldn’t just rely on trucking. It wouldn’t be very competitive, and we couldn’t expect any expansion.”

Golden said in retrospect the undertaking was a “gutsy” move that had to be done for the sake of the communities served by the railroad.

“But in times like that, you have to have vision,” he said. “It’s very important for Kansas to have rail.”

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Information from: The Wichita Eagle, http://www.kansas.com