Wichita’s pursuit of the Heartland Flyer passenger rail system has gained momentum, with state support, City Council support and a possible train station in downtown Wichita.
With an initial planning study for expanded rail service in hand, the Kansas Department of Transportation has joined the city’s ongoing pursuit of the Amtrak passenger route that runs from Dallas to Oklahoma City, with expansion possibilities from Fort Worth to Kansas City.
Officials from KDOT, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration have told the architect of the city’s passenger rail effort, council member Pete Meitzner, that his first goal has been met.
“We’re at a point where they have confirmed independently that the (initial planning) study done a year ago is a good first step that gets us in the game,” Meitzner said.
“We were afraid we weren’t in the classroom as a state, but we’ve got a chair now.”
The Wichita City Council has signed on to efforts launched nine months ago by Meitzner to pursue the rail service, making funding more passenger rail studies a lobbying priority for the upcoming legislative session.
The effort is supported by Wichita commercial developer Gary Oborny, who has a letter of intent to buy the city’s downtown rail hub, Union Station, and convert it into key hospitality, office and retail space.
Oborny said a rail terminal is in his plans for the building. If he lands Union Station from its owner, Cox Communications, Oborny said, he’ll save space for the Flyer.
The reason? Bringing people to Wichita, he said.
“The key isn’t just passenger rail,” Oborny said. “That’s a nice component, but the whole rail story is really about access to Wichita. If we want to drive commerce in our city, our gates and doors have to be open 24/7 every way we can think of.”
That commerce effort, launched by the Wichita Metro Chamber, where Oborny sits on the board, can be enhanced by rail passengers stopping in downtown Wichita.
“That’s why this effort is crucial,” he said. “The one thing we have to do right now is make sure we’re on the field and ready to play.”
Meitzner’s effort has landed critical allies in KDOT Secretary Mike King, a Hesston native, and his governmental affairs chief, Lindsay Douglas. King is continuing talks with Oklahoma officials who are more interested — today — in a more northeast route for the Heartland Flyer toward Tulsa that could be a roadblock to the Wichita effort, Douglas said.
“They have indicated to us at this point in time they’re interested in funding additional work,” she said. “They are interested in offering new service, but the towns north of Oklahoma City along the Heartland line are interested in service there, too. So there might be a sort of competing interest there.”
Douglas said the next step to move the Kansas Heartland line along is an environmental study, costing $3 million from Kansas and $2.3 million from Oklahoma, less with federal assistance.
And there are plans for a regional passenger rail workshop with the Federal Railroad Administration, a significant outreach to the feds showing that Kansas and Oklahoma are serious enough about passenger rail to need federal funds, Douglas said.
But, the immediate key toward the Heartland Flyer’s future in Wichita may lie in Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget proposal, which will be released on Jan. 16, and in the willingness of the federal government to provide grant funding, Douglas said, for future studies and for a project with an uncertain price tag. The latest project estimates, from 2011, are a little more than $87 million to run from Newton into Texas, although that number is fluid as the project develops and as time passes, officials said.
“Right now, there are a lot of demands on funds at the state level,” Douglas said. “Depending on the governor’s budget that comes out on the 16th, we’re all trying to figure out where our resources are and prioritize our investments. There are opportunities for federal funds, and we’re making sure that if federal funds become available, we can apply and be competitive.
“If funding becomes available, we’re in a good position to apply with the service development plan done.”
It’s all because Meitzner keeps pushing the passenger rail issue, Douglas said.
“It’s really opened from my standpoint our eyes to Wichita as a willing partner in this initiative,” she said. “They’ve really opened our eyes to different economic development opportunities there and what having that line through Wichita would do for the area. It’s been a good thing, working through these discussions.”