“We’re herding a lot of cats, but I think we’re making progress,” said Wichita City Councilman Pete Meitzner.
His comments follow a letter signed in early May by Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sly James in support of a plan to extend the passenger rail line so it would be linked from San Antonio to Kansas City.
“The fulfillment of our ultimate economic success is seriously hampered by the passenger rail ‘service gap’ between Oklahoma City and Wichita,” wrote the mayors.
Since then, initial excitement over prospects of a rail extension has diminished, while the issue now moves to behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
“It’s clearly a state issue,” Cornett told Oklahoma Gazette. “Oklahoma City would be helped, and it would really be good for our city. But it’s really an issue for the governors and the transportation departments in the two states.”
While Oklahoma and Kansas departments of transportation are working to get federal funding to make it happen, significant progress is likely several years away. A joint study conducted a year and a half ago by both states found it could cost $136 million “to get the trains running,” according to David Streb, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) engineering director who oversees the rail division.
That study also indicated operating costs would be around $4 million annually for the passenger rail to run on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) line.
“The $4 million wasn’t a surprise, but the $136 million was,” Streb said.
Some surveys indicate ridership could total 200,000 a year.
“We continue to get tremendous support, and Kansas City people are really excited about connecting to Oklahoma City and Dallas,” said Meitzner.
Complicating things is the push for high-speed rail between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Currently, an environmental impact study is under way for such a project. At one time, the Obama administration had $1.9 billion available for high-speed rail. Now it’s a matter of studying an OKC-to-Tulsa service development plan and determining whether the system would be high-speed. The higher the speed, the more ridership would be expected.
Then there is the need for an environmental clearance study on the existing BNSF rail line between Oklahoma City north to Wichita. Streb said it’s uncertain when funding would be available for that review.
Another potential problem is Oklahoma City’s efforts to purchase the privately owned Amtrak rail station — commonly called Santa Fe Station — and turn it into an intermodal hub for rail and street car traffic. Located on the west side of Bricktown, it has become a legal entanglement, as the city has moved to acquire it through eminent domain. Owners Brent and Brett Brewer contend the station is worth $23.5 million, far more than the $2.5 million offered by the city of Oklahoma City. OKC officials say the depot is part of its planned streetcar system.
Currently, ODOT rents the depot from the Brewers, whose late father, Jim Brewer, bought the facility for $375,000 in 1998. He didn’t charge the state rent for several years, but after his death, the sons began charging $15,297 per month. The state also helped pay for half of the $2 million spent on renovating the depot so the Heartland Flyer could make its debut in 1999.
Streb said it is the only privately owned depot on the entire Amtrak route in the country.
“But the hub is key to whatever we do,” he said.
While it appears at first blush that little progress is being made on all of the rail proposals, Streb said the reality is quite the contrary.
“We’re in close contact with the Kansas Department of Transportation, and admittedly, Kansas took the lead on this thing,” said Streb. “The quandary is the financing. If we had the money, there would be no hesitation on the issue.”
And for the Amtrak extension to occur, it can’t be just a problem for ODOT and Oklahoma City. Other cities and towns along the extended route will have to step up with financing and improvements for depots.
Another partner might be the state of Texas because it, too, would see economic benefits from a route that would take passengers from Kansas City to Wichita, OKC and Texas stops such as Fort Worth, Dallas and Austin.
And Kansas City remains a strong supporter of the proposal.
“By closing the gap between Oklahoma City and Wichita, it better facilitates travel down the entire I-35 corridor by passenger rail,” said Scott Wagner, a Kansas City councilman.
Kansas City reopened its historic Union Station in 1999 as part of a $250 million renovation that extended to its surrounding area.
“We think that greater passenger-rail service from Wichita to Oklahoma City and beyond opens up greater passenger-rail visits that can take advantage of Union Station and the surrounding area as well as on both sides of our state line and furthers Kansas City as a tourist destination,” said Wagner.
But Missouri has not pledged any financial support. Some help might come about, however, because Kansas City officials are considering a push to make the entire route from Kansas City to OKC a federal corridor.
“This would allow for federal funding for operations of this Amtrak line, allowing our respective states to make capital improvements to our lines to facilitate higher speeds where possible,” said Joni Wickham, director of public affairs for Kansas City Mayor James. “We are communicating with our congressional delegation to let them know of our activities so they can continue to budget dollars for further rail improvements, although for this project, the need is not immediate.”
In the meantime, Wichita officials have applied for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant to do an environmental study of the BNSF line in Kansas. The program is designed to fund investments in road, rail, transit and port projects that promise to achieve critical national objectives.
“If we’d get that, we’d be shovel-ready,” said Meitzner, although he conceded that it’s a highly competitive program. “The tracks are pretty good. There are only, like, five sections that need siding so freight trains could pull aside.”
Even as ODOT is working on the Amtrak extension and high-speed rail between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, it is in the midst of constructing a $78 million intermodal, double-decker bridge over the Arkansas River in Tulsa.
Support from Gov. Mary Fallin remains to be seen.
When pressed on the issue, her spokesman, Alex Weintz, issued a one-sentence response: “The governor has largely focused on repairing and maintaining roads and bridges.”
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