Kansas, Colorado groups aim to save Southwest Chief

4/30/2014

By PATRICK MALONE

By PATRICK MALONE

The Santa Fe New Mexican

(MCT) — A coalition of communities and private organizations in Western Kansas and Southern Colorado announced Tuesday that it has pledged $9 million and is pursuing $24.5 million in federal grants to keep Amtrak's Southwest Chief on its current route through those areas and Northern New Mexico.

No such steps have been taken in New Mexico, where a state study is underway to determine the economic benefits, infrastructure needs and costs, and possible constitutional constraints, but Gov. Susana Martinez's administration is hopeful for federal intervention.

U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both New Mexico Democrats, have urged a Senate committee to set aside funds for capital improvements for long-distance rail operations throughout the country, including the Southwest Chief passenger line.

"That's the most logical," said Tom Church, Martinez's Cabinet secretary for transportation. "That's the way it's always been funded."

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which owns the track along the Southwest Chief route, has said it would stop maintenance on the tracks in January 2016. An estimated commitment of $4 million a year for a decade from each of the two railroads and three states involved would be necessary to keep Amtrak from bypassing the portion of the Southwest Chief's route that runs from Western Kansas through Southern Colorado and the Northern New Mexico communities of Raton, Las Vegas and Lamy, the closest Amtrak station to Santa Fe for the passenger trains connecting Chicago and Los Angeles.

As part of the coalition announced Tuesday, BNSF committed to contributing $2 million, Amtrak $4 million and the Kansas Department of Transportation $3 million. These would be matching funds toward federal Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery grants, known as Tiger grants. Kansas previously applied unsuccessfully for a Tiger grant to help fund its share of costs for keeping the Southwest Chief on its current route.

Garden City Mayor Roy Cessna said the city is working on trying to keep the Southwest Chief going through Garden City. He said the city will provide matching funds should the grant application be successful, but didn't have a breakdown of the city's share of the proposed match.

The city applied for a Tiger grant last year and did not receive funding. This year, the city hired the Seneca Group, grant writers based in Washington, D.C., who wrote the grant application.

Ashley Freburg, communications specialist with the city of Garden City, said four Kansas communities — Garden City, Dodge City, Newton and Hutchinson, each have agreed to provide $12,500 toward the local matching amount.

"The match improves the chances of getting the grant," Freburg said. "If we get the grant, then we will pay that much toward the project."

Garden City and Finney County officials traveled to Washington, D.C. in March as part of the annual western Kansas legislative delegation. As part of that trip, officials met with the Seneca Group, Amtrak and BNSF representatives about the Southwest Chief and the Tiger grant, according to Freburg.

If awarded, the funds would restore 54.9 miles of track between Hutchinson and Las Animas, Colo.

Church said New Mexico is pursuing five Tiger grants on its own, but none of them would benefit the Southwest Chief. He said local governments, regional tourism cooperatives and private organizations contributing funds can only help the other states' efforts to land Tiger grants, but even then, it's not guaranteed.

Attempts in the New Mexico Legislature's session earlier this year to secure funding for the state's estimated $40 million share to keep the Southwest Chief on its current route failed. The Martinez administration has not been satisfied that preliminary cost estimates for making necessary repairs to the tracks are accurate.

"We just don't know how they came up with the infrastructure costs," Church said. "While we'd like to see the Southwest Chief continue, the fact remains that there's not full understanding of what the costs would be."

That's why the Governor's Office favored studying the project before funding it. "Our plan is to have a more detailed analysis of this situation for both the governor and the Legislature so that they can make a policy decision during the next session," Church said.

In Colorado, legislation that would help identify a funding stream for that state's share of keeping the Southwest Chief on track is pending.

Former Colorado lawmaker Sal Pace, now a Pueblo County commissioner, was instrumental in forging the coalition that pledged funds to the project. The proposed legislation in Colorado would expand the Southwest Chief line to add a stop in Pueblo that would increase the costs of the overall project by an estimated $31 million, according to an economic study by Colorado State University-Pueblo. The study says Colorado would see an estimated return of about 2-to-1 on its investment in keeping the Southwest Chief.

Pace said he hopes the commitments in Colorado and Kansas will push New Mexico to get on board.

"I feel confident that we're going to box them in, where they're going to have to step up or be the last ones who ultimately kill this line," Pace said. "And I don't think anyone in New Mexico wants to be personally responsible for killing the Southwest Chief."

Staff writer Scott Aust contributed to this story.

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