The loss of the Southwest Chief passenger rail line would cause a substantial disruption and loss of jobs, said representatives from cities facing an end-of-year deadline to secure a plan to improve or lose the line.
Garden City Manager Matt Allen joined Dodge City Attorney Ken Strobel in asking the House Transportation Committee for support as the cities attempt to carve a niche in the Amtrak budget.
“Faced with the potential suspension of passenger rail service through their region due to track infrastructure insufficient with Amtrak’s operating needs we have worked to bring Amtrak, BNSF, the State of Kansas and all three states’ local and federal elected representatives together to forge a solution to continue operation of the Southwest Chief through our communities,” Allen said.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe, or BNSF, is the freight carrier that owns the line.
BNSF downgraded the lines from 90 mph to 60 mph in 2010, below the service level required by Amtrak, who leases the lines. The railroad company has said its freight needs do not require a line upgrade.
If a decision to fund 150 miles of rail improvements is not reached by the end of the year, Amtrak will reroute the line south from Newton and into Oklahoma, Texas and then west toward Los Angeles.
Replacing 150 miles of clackety-clack bolted rail with continuously welded lines, as required to maintain passenger service, would cost about $72.4 million in addition to $10 million annually for maintenance.
Amtrak told the states and municipalities that local funds would be required to maintain service.
To save the line, about $200 million in funding will be needed over the next 20 years, $40 million from each of the states, Amtrak and BNSF.
“The request from Amtrak for state and local funds is daunting,” Strobel said. “So, we must explore other options. This is what we’re actively doing.”
The governments of Dodge City, Garden City, Hutchinson and Newton are members of a coalition of municipalities lobbying to improve the line.
Rather than asking the three states’ congressional delegations to increase the Amtrak budget, the cities are hoping to get the Southwest Chief line seen as a higher priority for existing funding levels.
Amtrak officials have said there is a lot of wants on the limited budget with little likelihood of growing.
“The Southwest Chief Rail Partnership will continue to need the state’s support in keeping passenger rail accessible to the western part of Kansas,” Allen said. “We thank you and are grateful for your strong support of the Southwest Chief and going forward the need will continue for the Legislature and KDOT to continue to be fully engaged and supportive.”
About 5,000 passengers per year use the depot in Dodge City despite the eastbound train arriving just after midnight and the westbound at 5 a.m. Another 7,000 use the line from Garden City. About 250,000 people ride the line each year.
Passenger rails have operating in Dodge City since its founding in the late 1800s, Strobel said, as the city was built from the intersection of the railroad and the cattle trail.
In New Mexico, the House approved a bill to divert oil and gas tax payments to bonds for the state’s part in improving the lines, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. The bill’s chances in the Senate and beyond are unknown, but Gov. Susana Martinez has said she is not inclined to contribute funds to a federal service.