Political Coalition Makes Strides for Chief

Colorado Takes Action

ColoRail learned of this situation in 2011, and, working with leaders in the three Colorado communities and counties, resolutions of support were obtained and a strategy to save the train was developed.  Community leaders in Kansas and New Mexico were then invited to join their Colorado colleagues for a meeting in November, 2011, hosted by the City of La Junta.

At the La Junta meeting, Amtrak presented the financial situation facing the Southwest Chief.  Over the next ten years, BNSF had estimated that about $95 million in capital improvements and $110 million in maintenance costs would have to be completed.  The capital cost estimates were principally for rail replacement. Much of the track in Kansas and Colorado was installed in the 1940’s and 50’s. It is simply wearing out. This old track requires increased maintenance hence that high cost for that item.

On the New Mexico part of the line, some capital costs for signaling and rail improvements were forecast, but the principle cost issue was simply that BNSF no longer uses the segment for its trains.  Because there is no freight traffic, rail there remains in good condition, but Amtrak will face higher maintenance costs.

A strategy to form a coalition up and down the endangered segment was proposed and adopted unanimously.  While the coalition initially based its campaign to save the train on obtaining federal support, they learned in early 2012 that no direct federal funding would be available.  Congressional representatives informed the coalition that state and local money would be necessary if the train was to be saved.  The decision became:  do you want to stand on principle about sources of funding or do you want to save the train?

Amtrak proposed a five party solution later in 2012.  Under this proposal, Amtrak, BNSF, and the three states would share the burden equally over the next ten years.  While none of the parties agreed to this proposal it did become the basis for continuing discussions.  Then the three state Departments of Transportation weighed in.  While they would like to see the train continue, they stated in a letter that they would not be providing financial support.  This decision was made is in spite of the fact that saving the train was either the top or second highest transportation priority for the regions of the three states where the train runs.

New Coalition Strategy

Faced with this situation, the Coalition developed a two pronged strategy:  appeal to the legislatures and seek a TIGER (Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Garden City, KS, spearheaded the TIGER grant strategy with an application in 2013 which was not funded.  Colorado and New Mexico began legislative appeals.  Both strategies came to varying degrees of success in 2014.

In Colorado, the Southwest Chief Rail Line Commission was formed to take over the role of championing the train.  Key to its passage was the idea of expanding Southwest Chief service to Pueblo, Colorado, putting the train within 40 miles of Colorado Springs and providing better access to southern Colorado’s many tourist attractions including national parks and scenic rail lines.  The legislation also created a fund for Commission’s mission to save the train and add Pueblo.  No appropriation was made in 2014.  Instead the Commission was to come back with recommendations in 2015.

In New Mexico, the House of Representatives passed a bill with an overwhelming margin (47-12) establishing a funding source from the state’s capital improvement and severance tax account.  The State’s 30 day legislative session ended before the bill could be acted on by the Senate.  Part of the reason for the last minute hiatus was an “anti-donation” clause in the New Mexico constitution. However, two studies were funded at the last minute, a legal study to see if funding the route was possible under the State’s and an economic study to see if a state investment would return value to the state.  Both studies came back in favor of the train in November, 2014.

Meanwhile, Garden City renewed its efforts to obtain a TIGER grant.  To strengthen the application 11 Colorado cities, counties and advocacy groups pledged $250,000 of matching funds toward the application in return for a share of improvements to rail in Colorado.  Four Kansas communities pledged $60,000, and the three major players pledged $9 million.  Amtrak pledged $4 million, Kansas Department of Transportation pledged $3 million and BNSF pledged $2 million.  In addition, and equally important to the entire effort, BNSF announced that it would absorb the maintenance costs up to passenger train standards in Kansas and Colorado if the capital improvements were made.  This combination of local participation and major match funding support made for a very strong application.  $13.9 million of federal funding was requested in the application which was submitted in April, 2014.

Tiger Grant Awarded

In September, 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that a grant of $12.5 million would be awarded to Garden City for the Southwest Chief Route Improvement Project!  Combined with the $9.4 million in matching funds, the project will pay for $21.9 million dollars to rail improvements to the segments of track most in need of replacement.  This will replace between 40 and 50 miles of rail.  With the BNSF pledge to absorb maintenance costs, the TIGER grant became a major game changer!

Legislation Introduced in Colorado

Buoyed by the TIGER grant award, the Southwest Chief Rail Line Commission is seeking an appropriation from the 2015 Colorado General Assembly. Following a report from the Amtrak member base on new estimates from BNSF, the Commission is seeking $8.91 million.  Senate Bill 15-176 has been introduced and a companion bill has been introduced in the House. The Commission has briefed legislators and the Governor’s staff on the measure. The bi-partisan bill has passed its first hurdle, passing out of the Senate Local Government Committee on a bi-partisan vote. It now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the next hurdle.

New Mexico vies for more time

In New Mexico, the Southwest Chief is facing serious but resolvable challenges.  With the legal obstacles out of the way, supporting legislators and advocates prepared to introduce supportive legislation in the 2015 session.  However, the recent decline in oil prices has severely impacted the state budget.  The New Mexico Department of Transportation has indicated its interest in supporting a TIGER grant application but would need a legislative appropriation to do so from a severely depleted budget.  Advocates have suggested extending the deadline for support until oil prices recover.  While Amtrak has not said anything declarative about such a recommendation, representatives of the railroad have pointed out that New Mexico’s track problems are not as immediate problem as on other parts of the route.  Can a deal be worked out?  ColoRail says to get it done in Kansas and Colorado and New Mexico will recognize the importance of supporting the train.

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