Thursday, February 04, 2010

Amtrak Kansas grant needs matching cash

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Kansas has received a grant to develop a business plan for an expanded Amtrak passenger rail service south from Newton to Oklahoma City - but no money to actually develop the line, The Hutchinson News reports. The $250,000 award from the $8 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program also must be locally matched, which is not a foregone conclusion with the fiscal crisis facing the state, officials acknowledged.

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation previously committed to share the cost of the match requirement, meaning if it was evenly split, the Kansas Department of Transportation needs to come up with $125,000.

"I'm pleased that Kansas has received this grant, and now we must find match money in our budget, which has been hard hit by cuts and decreased revenue this year," said Transportation Secretary Deb Miller in a release.

Amtrak is currently conducting a study, ongoing for more than a year, which will identify some of the costs of such an upgrade, as well as scheduling suggestions and creating ridership projections, said Tom Hein, public affairs manager with KDOT in Wichita, who is overseeing its rail efforts.

"They'll also give us an idea on how much income can be generated by the line, and extrapolate to how much of a subsidy would be needed to maintain it," Hein said.

The proposed "service development plan" funded in part by the grant, Hein explained, might determine where and what to do to prepare the track for high-speed trains, a timeline for the project and method of operation.

"And then we make the decisions Amtrak won't make for us, such as what towns will have stops and what the schedule will look like - whether day or night and the frequency," he said.

All of it is contingent, Hein said, on the Kansas Legislature and whether it believes taxpayers want the program funded or not.

"I imagine there will be rigorous debate," he said. "The more information we have for them to talk about it, the better. If the Legislature says no, we go on about our lives. But there is a lot of public support and a lot of support in the Legislature."

A Senate bill to establish a passenger rail service in Kansas was on the docket of the Kansas State Senate Transportation Committee meeting Feb. 3. Northern Flyer Alliance Inc. leadership, which is promoting development of the new route from Kansas City to Fort Worth, was expected to testify in support of the bill, which would create a revolving fund for future passenger rail development.

"The state's fiscal condition precludes any expectation that the revolving fund will receive funding this year," said Deborah Fischer Stout, president of the organization. "However, the establishment of such a fund demonstrates to the Federal Railroad Administration that Kansas is serious about passenger rail development."

The state likely did not receive two other grants it applied for, Hein said, because the program is in its infancy, but later applications may be more successful.

One grant application requested $7.6 million to make track improvements between Emporia and Barclay on BNSF tracks to allow increased speeds on Amtrak's Southwest Chief. The second was a $10-million request to upgrade signals and crossings on BNSF tracks from Newton to the Oklahoma state line. These improvements would be necessary if an extension of the Heartland Flyer passenger rail service is extended from Oklahoma City to Newton.

"They had a lot more applications than money they could spread around," Hein said. "It's hard for someone at the national level to say 'Let's give a big chunk of change to Kansas,' when we don't have anything on the ground. I think if Kansas continues these baby steps, maybe we'll be ready for the next round."

There is no timetable for developing the service plan, Hein said, but the process will begin with finding a consultant to help write it.

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