Amtrak study proposes four different alternatives for rail service from Kansas City to Fort Worth

With a recently released study by Amtrak and actions from the Kansas and Oklahoma Legislatures, a state-sponsored interstate passenger rail service is chugging closer to reality.

On March 11, four passenger rail service alternatives to link Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, were unveiled by Amtrak and the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT). Amtrak estimates ridership at between 65,900 to 174,000 per year, and the startup costs for the alternatives range from $156 million to $479 million.

What this means for Oklahoma, however, is a proposed restored passenger rail service to Kansas, linking in Oklahoma’s passenger rail line that currently operates to Fort Worth.

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation continues to wait on actions from its northern neighbor.

“I am pleased that we have completed this first step,” said Deb Miller, Kansas Transportation Secretary, in a news release announcing the completion of the long-awaited study. “With this study in hand, we can begin to have the kind of meaningful dialogue that is necessary for Kansans to make a decision about how to proceed with passenger rail in our state.”

The Amtrak study includes two proposed day routes and two night routes. The routes would link the corridor with the existing line between Texas and Oklahoma and the existing line between Chicago and Los Angeles.

The four alternatives are:

Alternative 1 ““ This would be a nighttime service to run between Newton, Kan., and Fort Worth. The estimated annual ridership for this line is 92,500. It would require infrastructure improvements by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway of an estimated $114.3 million, plus an estimated $40 million by Amtrak for additional locomotives and railcars. The annual state operating cost would be $3.2 million.

Alternative 2 ““ This is the second nighttime service, this one from Kansas City to Fort Worth. The annual ridership is estimated at 118,200. This alternative would require an estimated $274 million in BNSF infrastructure improvements, plus the same estimated $40 million by Amtrak for more railcars and locomotives. The annual state operating cost would be $5.2 million.

Alternative 3 ““ This daytime service would link Kansas City and Fort Worth. The estimated ridership is 174,000 annually, the highest of the four alternatives. It would require an estimated $413 million in BNSF infrastructure improvements, plus another estimated $63 million by Amtrak, making it the most expensive alternative. The annual state operating cost would be $8 million.

Alternative 4 ““ This second daytime service would link Kansas City and Oklahoma City, with an annual ridership of 65,900. This alternative would require infrastructure improvements of an estimated $251 million by BNSF, plus $56 million by Amtrak. The annual state cost is estimated at $6.4 million.

Evan Stair, Oklahoma vice president of the Northern Flyer Alliance, said the third alternative is favored.

“Alternative three is the one our organization endorses,” he said. “Two new trains would travel at 7 a.m. both northand southbound from Fort Worth and Kansas City, arriving at the opposite final destination at 7 p.m. This particular plan serves Oklahoma and Wichita business interests well and would promote economic development in Oklahoma City and Bricktown.”

Although the study has been completed, it’s basically just one step in the development of an expanded interstate rail service, said John Maddox, rail and freight manager for KDOT.

“For the expansion and development of passenger rail, certain steps have to be taken,” Maddox said. “We have to start at ‘point A,’ and this study takes us to ‘point A.'”

Yet, the Kansas Legislature was proactive in putting certain laws in place that would position the state to move quickly on developing a passenger rail into Oklahoma.

Earlier this month, the Kansas Legislature passed Senate Bill 409 by a 90 percent majority, which develops a revolving fund for passenger rail development. Although unfunded at this time, the bill also enables KDOT to enter into contracts with passenger rail providers and with other states, like Oklahoma.

“The capital costs would have to be handled by the federal government,” Stair said. “In late January, the Federal Railroad Association was awarded $8 billion in the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program. Another $2.5 billion will be awarded in September for passenger rail, so there are federal dollars out there to pay for upgrades.”

In addition, the Kansas Legislature also approved House Bill 2552 earlier in the month, which would allow Kansas to become a part of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, a consortium currently of 10 states. Kansas would make state 11.

Funding, however, remains the sticking point.

“The financial situation in Kansas is as bad as it is here in Oklahoma,” Stair said. “SB 409 is unfunded, but it creates a holding place for future funding. If the federal money comes in, we’re looking at an operational cost of $8 million a year that could be split between Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. Why wouldn’t we do that?”

Next stop
The next stop for an intercity passenger rail service connecting Kansas to Oklahoma and Texas includes a service development plan for whichever of the four proposed alternatives both states could agree on.

John Maddox, with the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT), said outreach to stakeholders like the general public, Oklahoma and Texas, is Kansas’ next step, although no timeline has been set.

The results of the Amtrak study will provide background for a development plan by the Kansas and Oklahoma departments of transportation.

Both KDOT and ODOT have committed $125,000 to match a $250,000 grant award provided to Kansas through the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program, funded through the Federal Railroad Administration.

“In January, Kansas received a $250,000 grant to do a service development plan for whichever route,” said Evan Stair, Oklahoma vice president for the Northern Flyer Alliance. “Both Kansas and Oklahoma have committed to partner and split an additional $250,000 to do the study. The study will provide federal decisionmakers with the information they need if we develop a grant request to develop intercity rail.”

A complete plan is a requirement of the HSIPR grant application. The HSIPR program includes $8 billion in federal funding for 2010 available to qualifying state applications. States are expected to cover the operational costs.

The Amtrak study that proposed the four alternatives comes after the HSIPR program approved $11.25 million for projects along the rail corridor, including $4 million in upgrades between Fort Worth and the Oklahoma border. “Heide Brandes

Evan Stair, Oklahoma vice president for the Northern Flyer Alliance, walks between tracks leading south from downtown OKC. photo/Mark Hancock

Heide Brandes

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