Newton Mayor Barth Hague has been advocating for the expansion of the Heartland Flyer, which if expanded could add a southbound train to the schedule at the Newton train station — connecting Newton to Wichita, Oklahoma City and the state of Texas.
To that end he attended a hearing of the Oklahoma Legislature Sept. 6, along with the mayor of Wichita, to discuss the extension of the train. The Oklahoma Legislature is looking at a study on an extension of the Heartland Flyer done by the state of Kansas.
“It was an opportunity for members of the Oklahoma House Committee to hear more about mass transit,” Hague said. " ... Oklahoma struggles with the idea of 'do we extend rail to Tulsa, or do we extend rail to Newton, Kansas?' What most of the presenters were saying yesterday was 'you should do both.'"
Hague met with the head of the Oklahoma Transportation Department and other staff, and left encouraged.
"At one time I would have said this will never happen in my lifetime. At this point it could actually happen in my lifetime," Hague said. "Lets hope."
Hague believes there will start to be a gathering of community leaders along the proposed Flyer route that could lead to some advoacy for the extension.
The Heartland Flyer, which serves Oklahoma and Texas cities, is currently funded by those states. Amtrak receives funding from 18 states through 21 agencies for financial support of 29 short-distance routes (less than 750 miles).
While those meetings were happening, there was also action in Washington D.C. Amendments to a house appropriations bill would have ended long-distance rail by eliminating more than $1 billion in grants that support the national rail system. A second amendment would have reduced or eliminated funds for TIGER grants, which have been used to fund rail improvements in the past.
As of Thursday, both of those amendments were dead according to Politco and Amtrak officials.
Ron Estes' (R-Kansas), office confirmed both were dead, and confirmed that Estes voted against the elimination of long distance train funding amendment. Estes represents Wichita, Newton and the surrounding area.
"There is not much appetite in Washington for cutting back on rail service," Hague said. "... Those proposals keep surfacing and probably will keep surfacing for a while."
The Kansan first reported on the efforts to extend the Heartland Flyer in 2008. In 2012 the Kansas Department of Transportation estimated the cost of improvements needed for the Newton route would be $87.5 million. The Kansas City route would cost about $245.5 million. The vision for the project includes a daytime passenger train that would travel from Dallas/Fort Worth to the Wichita/Newton area.
Those cost estimates have been adjusted since that time, and according to Hague, the plan is much more attainable. Kansas would have to fund about $2 million annually in addition to initial funding that has not been finalized.
“There is work to be done, but things are hopeful at this point," Hague said.
Hague said he believes the next step for the Flyer is trying to get funding from the Kansas Department of Transportation. He told The Kansan he and others are looking at reforming a group that lobbied for the preservation of the Southwest Chief to support the expansion of the Flyer.
Those cities would include Topeka, Pratt and Dodge City, among others.
"Those Southwest Chief cities have a lot to gain from an extension," Hague said. "We need to create some support and create a voice in Topeka."
At this time, Newton is the busiest train station in Kansas. According to Amtrak, the station hosted 13,741 alightings in 2016, the most recent numbers available. Currently the only train serving the Newton station is the Southwest Chief, a long-distrance train between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Supporters of the expansion of the Heartland Flyer tout a connection in Newton — a way for travelers from Texas and Oklahoma to connect with the Southwest Chief, and vice-versa.
Amtrak announced a bus connection between Newton and Oklahoma City — following the proposed route of the extended Heartland Flyer — in 2016. At the time, officials said the bus route could be the precursor to extending the rail route.
The Heartland Flyer currently operates from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, Texas. At Fort Worth, passengers have the opportunity to connect to the Texas Chief, which runs from Chicago to San Antonio – one of the long-distance trains in the country.
The proposed expansion would essentially connect Newton to Fort Worth – in other words, past Oklahoma City to Newton.
Doing so would provide a way for passengers to connect from the Southwest Chief, which currently comes through Newton, all the way to San Antonio and then catch the southern train that runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles.