BY ANGIE HAFLICH
A "rolling meeting" took place Thursday afternoon across Kansas, when state and local officials boarded an Amtrak train at various stops along the Southwest Chief route to both observe the condition of the tracks, as well as discuss funding needed to repair and maintain it.
In hopes of saving Amtrak's Southwest Chief route, a portion of which runs through western Kansas, southeast Colorado and northern New Mexico, state transportation officials, Amtrak and Burlington Northern Santa Fe officials, local officials from various towns along the route, including Garden City Manager Matt Allen and City Communications Specialist Ashley Freburg, were picked up by an Amtrak engine pulling BNSF passenger cars. The trip allowed officials to view the track as the train passes over it.
Allen said he thought it was important to go, so as to participate in discussions aimed at seeking solutions to the funding issue facing Amtrak.
"Amtrak extended the invitation to the affected cities along the Southwest Chief route and the departments of transportation at the state level to kind of continue the discussions as far as solutions to the funding problem for some of their maintenance needs and ongoing service needs," Allen said.
The maintenance issue involves sagging train tracks, which cause a rocking motion if the train passes over it too fast. BNSF owns the track, but maintains the rail only to what is necessary for 30- to 40-mph freight traffic to travel on it. Rail maintenance required for speeds above that level is Amtrak's responsibility, and in 2016, Amtrak will be required to begin paying the full cost of maintaining the route, estimated at about $10 million per year and $100 million in long-term improvement needs.
Transportation officials from all three states indicate that kind of funding isn't available.
Ray Lang, chief of state government relations for Amtrak's midwest region, said that because of that, the goal of the meeting was to share the issues that Amtrak is facing and to generate enthusiasm and support for keeping the service on the rail.
"We're trying to find ways to break the number down into more manageable bites, spread over time. But in terms of the project itself, it has to be done from Newton all the way to Albuquerque," he said, adding that in order to keep that route, active supporters of the infrastructure, including communities with Amtrak stops, will be vital in making a case for the funding that will be needed in order to do so.
Allen said his hopes for the ride are that either BNSF or Amtrak officials can provide more specifics on some of the infrastructure needs of the rail.
"Anything we've heard to this point has really been aggregate numbers," Allen said, adding that his hope is to see areas of concern, obtaining estimates of costs to fix certain sections and where those sections are on the route.
"I think that would help both the state departments of transportation and local communities to get a sense of who needs to pay what or what a good solution is," he said. "There's enough players involved that we're confident a solution can be worked out, but everybody's got to be willing to stay at the table, so to speak."
Kirk Hutchinson, public affairs manager for the southwest district of KDOT, didn't participate in the ride itself, but said that the kind of state funding needed to repair and maintain the rail is something that probably will require the Legislature to step in.
District 123 Rep.-elect John Doll and Mayor David Crase tentatively planned to join the train ride, but neither were present.
When asked what his thoughts were on the possibility of losing the route, Allen said he definitely doesn't want to see that happen.
"It's an important part of the whole transportation picture. There's a lot of people who use it for transportation in and out of Garden City," he said. "I don't think a community ever wants to take a step back, as far as the options it offers its citizens and the people who want to come visit."
When asked what he plans to do as a local representative to ensure that the citizens have a voice in any decisions that are made about the route, Allen said he intends to stay involved in discussions.
"That's really kind of why we're here today — always there and always part of it and represented — not just southwest Kansas, but as all the communities along this section of rail. For the terms of this project, regionalism takes on a little bit bigger concept than we've been using on some other kinds (of projects). We've been in close contact with other communities in Colorado and New Mexico, and we've aligned ourselves loosely, to secure some people to represent our interests. So we're going to stay in touch that way, too."