The Kansas legislative session is in the committee stage, meaning there are not a ton of bills floating around to debate, but there is still plenty happening under the capital dome.
For Sen. Carolyn McGinn, transportation has been at the forefront of work in the early stages of the session — with a report from a transportation task force she chaired last year due for presentation Monday.
Within that report is a recommendation to have the Kansas Department of Transportation pursue the Heartland Flyer — extending an Amtrak train that operates between Texas and Oklahoma north to Newton via Wichita.
McGinn hosted a hearing on passenger rail last week, choosing “city/county day.” That day is one designated for visits from city and county governmental leaders. McGinn hosted a similar hearing on city/county day the previous year.
“We had such a good turnout, we decided to do that again,” McGinn said.
Harvey County commissioner Chip Westfall and Newton city commissioner Barth Hague were both on the hill that day, and both attended the passenger rail hearing.
Much of the ground covered during the hearing was similar to hearings hosted by the transportation task force last year — namely that the long-distance, federally-funded, Southwest Chief needs to be preserved, and if it is, the Heartland Flyer can be extended.
“People feel like we are making progress,” McGinn said. “We have two issues. One is the Southwest Chief and making sure that Amtrak continues to invest in that. That is key to getting people from Chicago to Los Angeles. It also key, if we are ever going to have a Heartland Flyer, to finally connect from north states to the south states.”
A plan floated by Amtrak last summer to use a bus bridge between Garden City and Albuquerque, New Mexico, on the Southwest Chief slowed the development of the Heartland Flyer — namely delaying rail studies by BNSF of tracks that could be used to extend the train from Oklahoma City to Newton.
Amtrak has backed off of that plan, and grants have been announced to help install Positive Train Control — a piece of safety equipment — in parts of Colorado and New Mexico. Hague said for those portions of the line not covered by the grants, a waiver has already been granted by the federal government to allow for Amtrak to continue service.
“I got the impression that Amtrak has called off the dogs,” Hague said.
“Kansas has just about everything completed in that area (PTC),” McGinn said.”We still have to work on Colorado and New Mexico. There is more grant money for those things, in the budget, if the (federal) government ever opens up and move forward.”
McGinn said once those things are in place, the BNSF study needs to be completed.
That study will give a cost estimate for infrastructure improvements that will be needed — turnouts and sidings to allow for freight and passenger trains to share the line. Early estimates were $130 million, however, Amtrak said during the meetings this week that it will not be that much. Amtrak can operate on the line at slower speeds to reduce the cost.
“I came away feeling positive about the discussion,” Hague said. “I think we can see something sooner, rather than later.”
The BNSF study, however, does need to be completed.
“Once we have that we can start to roll up our sleeves and start talking to Oklahoma to see what their commitment will be,” McGinn said. “The locals, where the stations might be, a lot of these partnerships have cities where the train stops, they help facilitate keeping those stations open.”
According to Evan Stair president of Passenger Rail Oklahoma and Passenger Rail Kansas, told The Newton Kansan that Oklahoma and Texas are currently working on increasing the capacity of the flyer on the southern portion of the line and are not engaged in the Kansas project.