Rail advocate visits Garden City, touts need for Amtrak
By ANGIE HAFLICH
With a lack of mass transportation options available to people in southwest Kansas, rail transportation remains important, in terms of both its economic impact and its ability to provide affordable access for rural passengers.
Bob Stewart, chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a 501c3 nonprofit organization that speaks for users of passenger trains around the country, spoke Thursday afternoon about the importance of rail transportation and the future of the Amtrak's Southwest Chief passenger service that runs through Kansas on its route between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Passenger rail service through western Kansas, eastern Colorado and northern New Mexico has been threatened because Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the railroad company that owns the track on that route, no longer requires that the track be maintained to the standard needed to run competitive passenger train speeds.
"The key date for the Southwest Chief is Jan. 20, 2016, because that is the day that the contract between BNSF and Amtrak expires," Stewart said. "BNSF is proposing that they'll need $200 million over 10 years for upgrading the line and maintenance over three states — Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas, each of which would have to put up $4 million per year for 10 years," Stewart said.
Garden City Commissioner Janet Doll said that the revenue generated by Amtrak far outweighs the cost of upgrading and maintaining the line.
"I think it's important to send the message to all the state representatives and the state senators — not just those who are in the areas that are affected — that Amtrak contributes over $30 million in 2012 in our economy just here in Kansas," she said. "So, a $4 million investment per year for 10 years is, I think, money well spent, because after that, it will last for a really long time. It's good return on your investment."
According to Stewart, the Southwest Chief route currently has just one train a day in each direction, yet it attracts 355,000 passengers per year, or 350 million passenger miles. The route offers not only a chance for passengers to save money, but also an option that is, for some, more easily accessible, he said.
"We have a mobility crisis in this country, especially when you get outside of the major cities. The airlines are cutting back service," Stewart said. "We see this problem around the country, where medium-sized cities have lost airline service, bus service and where Amtrak is their one connection, their one link to the rest of the country. We're going to have 100 million more people between now and 2050. How are we going to move them around? We have an aging population, too, that doesn't want to go through all the hassle of the airport, or the cost."
He said that airlines and highways receive much higher government subsidies than the rails do.
"We're all for good airlines and highways. Don't misunderstand me. But we think the rails need to get their fair share of the support that they need," he said. "Your state (legislators) and your federal congressman should know how important this train is. Think about it, if you guys happen to lose that American Airlines flight, this train is going to become even more important to the citizens of Garden City as a means of connecting with other cities."
Stewart said that President Obama is supportive of passenger service but that partisan politics plays a role in the transportation discussion just as much as any other topic in Washington.
"We're a nonprofit 501c3 organization, so we work both sides of the aisle. We work with Republicans, we work with Democrats. We don't think this should be a party issue. This should be an American issue. Economic success is based on transportation. That's a big part of the infrastructure. We're ranked 23rd in the world right now in terms of our transportation infrastructure. We ought to be ashamed of that. We ought to be number one in the world in transportation infrastructure," he said.
According to a press release from NARP, one of the organization's top priorities was the $17 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant application submitted by the city of Garden City. The funds would have gone to support the replacement of the bolted rail with welded rail on BNSF track between Hutchinson and La Junta, Colo., but the application was denied.
State Rep. John Doll, R-Garden City, said the grant was only partially supported by those who represent Kansas in Washington. He said while Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts signed it, Rep. Tim Huelskamp did not.
"Our congressman — and I'm not sitting here bagging, I'm just stating a fact — Tim Huelskamp didn't sign a letter of support. It was an extremely competitive grant to begin with ..." Doll said.
Former Sen. Robert Dole, who serves as special counsel at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Alston & Bird, expressed in a letter to Garden City Mayor Dan Fankhauser and guests that he was disappointed the TIGER grant was not accepted.
In the letter, Dole also said that nationally, Amtrak ridership increased 5.1 percent between 2010 and 2011, generating a revenue increase of 8.5 percent and that the Southwest Chief saw a ridership increase of 3.7 percent between 2010 and 2011, generating a 6.2 percent increase in revenue.
Dole said that increased ridership not only creates more jobs for those who directly serve train passengers, but also for those who perform repairs and upgrades and those who manufacture parts for new cars and locomotives. He said losing the Southwest Chief would be substantial and disruptive to the communities and states served by the line and that he will continue to advocate on behalf of Garden City and other communities that rely on it.
"It's important to send the message to all of the states," Stewart said. "I think we need to get the federal government involved in this in a bigger way."