The mayors of Wichita, Kansas City and Oklahoma City have thrown their weight behind returning passenger rail service to southern Kansas, signing a letter supporting the extension of train service from Oklahoma City through Wichita into Kansas City.
The agreement among Carl Brewer, Sly James and Mick Cornett – called the first cooperative agreement among mayors of the three cities – was announced Friday afternoon. A news conference at Union Station brimmed with optimism about the return of passenger trains to Wichita.
“This is a big deal,” Wichita Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner said. “It’s tremendously exciting when forces like this come together to show what we can do. And we’re not going to quit until we understand that this is impossible to do.”
The goal for passenger rail supporters in this area is closing a 185-mile service gap from Oklahoma City to Wichita, connecting the Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer line to its Southwest Chief train line.
Wichita officials were joined by Kansas City, Mo., Councilman Scott Wagner, who touted rail as “why we’re the Kansas City of today.”
“When you can link the 2.5 million people of Kansas City with the 6.5 million people of Dallas-Fort Worth, we benefit and everyone in between benefits,” Wagner said.
“This isn’t a Kansas City effort,” Wagner said, promising to “deliver our friends in Johnson County and Wyandotte County.”
“This is a Kansas effort,” he said.
Meitzner and city officials also announced that the Kansas Department of Transportation has authorized them to pursue federal funding for the estimated $90 million cost of passenger rail expansion from Oklahoma City to Wichita. Brewer was returning from a Sister Cities visit to France and missed the news conference.
KDOT will contribute $3 million in state match and technical support for the grant application process, city officials said. That funding is contingent on the state of Oklahoma providing $2.3 million as its share of the cost.
Cornett, the Oklahoma City mayor, said in an interview that he supports the expansion. He said rail travel is very popular with his constituents.
“This gets back to serving the citizens of our city,” Cornett said. “We have a line to Fort Worth, and it’s not unusual at all for that line to be full.
“Fact is, we need to have transportation options besides vehicular traffic, besides buses and cars. It’s time we start a serious investment in rail. We have a long, long way to go, but it’s time we head in that direction.”
Cornett dismissed concerns about public subsidies for rail service.
“Those subsidies are generally in the same conversation with the costs to build roads and highways,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think there are people who prefer to be out of their cars.”
Meitzner has been the city’s point man on passenger rail service for more than a year, working with Kansas Department of Transportation Secretary Mike King’s office. King is a former Wichita businessman.
Meitzner said Friday that state legislators, including Sens. Oletha Faust-Goudeau and Carolyn McGinn, and the city’s federal delegation, including Sen. Jerry Moran and Rep. Mike Pompeo, have supported the project.
The new owners of Union Station, Wichita-based Occidental Management, have confirmed they’d like to host a passenger terminal in the station if the route runs through Wichita.
“Certainly, if we can get the Flyer through here, that’s great,” Union Station owner Gary Oborny said Friday. “Even bigger, though, is promoting our community. This is a great thing for Wichita if we can get this done.”
Wichita’s interest is part of a broader collection of studies along the length of the line, from the Texas border north through Oklahoma City. Texas and Oklahoma have launched their own study, primarily to alleviate highway overcrowding.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, the proposed Flyer route has two possible destinations: north through Wichita or northeast through Tulsa. A private study group in Tulsa is examining the possibility of private passenger trains on the northeast route through their city, operating in concert with a northbound Heartland Flyer line through Wichita.