May 27, 2012

Council member wants Wichita to stay involved in passenger rail discussions

Passenger rail service is back on Wichita’s radar, with an eye toward the economic benefits of luring the Heartland Flyer to downtown’s Union Station.

Passenger rail service is back on Wichita’s radar, with an eye toward the economic benefits of luring the Heartland Flyer to downtown’s Union Station.

But apparently it’s not on the radar of state transportation officials, the first significant obstacle in what local and state officials admit is a long-term economic development vision.

Wichita City Council member Pete Meitzner is leading the city’s investigation into the viability of passenger rail. The Newton City Commission — Newton is the current Amtrak depot for the area — also has expressed interest in the Heartland Flyer.

And now is the right time to be checking out rail, Meitzner said, with federal officials choosing between two proposed routes to extend the Heartland Flyer line north of Oklahoma City. One route would take the line north through Oklahoma City to Wichita, and the other would miss Wichita and veer off to the northeast through Tulsa and Joplin to St. Louis.

The Heartland Flyer currently connects Dallas-Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, but has no further route north.

Meitzner is clear — he’s investigating the issue with the support of his council members, and the city isn’t committing itself.

“I went into this with the idea of investigating it and closing the file, finding out why passenger rail won’t work here,” he said. “The facts, though, suggest that it might.

“What we have found is that we have a chance. Being in the game is all I want at this point. Passenger rail is at the decision time in our part of the country. If you want to come from the south to the northern tracks, there’s no place to do that, and we’re the logical point.”

In fact, figures provided by Amtrak indicate that the Heartland Flyer’s ridership is on the rise, up 10.6 percent in the first half of fiscal year 2012, the highest percentage increase in the central United States.

‘Getting our feet wet’

Meitzner’s city colleagues in Newton agree, allocating $15,000 for a study upgrading the Southwest Chief, which runs from daily from Chicago to Los Angeles through Newton and expressing interest in the Heartland Flyer.

“We’re just getting our feet wet with the discussion,” said Barbara Burns, Newton’s community advancement coordinator. “We are interested in it (the Heartland Flyer) staying in Kansas rather than the alternate proposed route through Oklahoma and Missouri.”

The idea of Heartland Flyer riders getting off at the Union Station on East Douglas to dine and stay in downtown appeals to Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. and one of the point men on the city’s downtown revitalization project. At least one potential buyer for Union Station has told The Eagle they are willing to dedicate part of the building to railroad operations.

“In looking long-term at downtown’s future, we should be pursuing everything we can, so we’re behind this effort,” Fluhr said. “If we’re a part of passenger rail in the future, we want to be ready to capture the opportunities that it brings. Wichita is the economic center of this region, and downtown is a location that should be considered as a depot point because of the surrounding amenities we have.”

First step: Study

Job one for Meitzner is Kansas participation in an environmental and economic study under way by the states of Oklahoma and Texas. Taking part, Meitzner said, “is part of getting in line for a shovel-ready project, a kind of application.”

But the study’s price tag is steep — about $5 million for the Kansas portion — and it’s unlikely that the Kansas Department of Transportation can afford the tab in an era of state spending cuts.

New KDOT secretary Mike King, a Hesston native, was not optimistic.

“Through the T-WORKS program, we don’t have a financial mechanism right now to pursue passenger rail,” King said. “We’re going to need additional funding to do that. Regarding the environmental study that will be needed before we can get serious, I’ve been talking with my Oklahoma counterpart to see if they’re willing to share in that funding. So far, Oklahoma hasn’t been willing to take part in their share of the funding. This looks like a very long-term proposal.”

KDOT has a history of involvement with such studies, according to Evan Stair of Norman, Okla., vice chairman of a Midwest passenger rail task force. However, Stair said legislative cooperation on the Heartland Flyer fell apart in 2010 and he dismissed the multistate discussions referenced by King as “policy chatter.”

That’s the size of the challenge before Meitzner, but the Wichita council member isn’t backing down. He wants to avoid a repeat of the surprise surrounding the city’s loss of the 2011 U.S. Bowling Congress tournament to Orlando, Fla. “All I want to do is get in the game,” he said. “I don’t want this to be the bowling tournament again where all we do is look back and say, ‘What happened?’ We want to be in the game.”

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