June 20, 2013

Kansas, Wichita seek federal grant to complete planning for passenger rail extension

The state and Wichita are seeking almost $13 million in federal grant funding to accelerate plans to extend passenger rail from Oklahoma City to Wichita.

The state and Wichita are seeking almost $13 million in federal grant funding to accelerate plans to extend passenger rail from Oklahoma City to Wichita.

In a grant application filed June 3, the city and state are asking for $12.7 million in TIGER grant funding to essentially complete the planning — but not the construction — for the possible extension of Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer line to Wichita and Newton, connecting it with the Southwest Chief line and closing a 185-mile service gap from Oklahoma City to Wichita.

The Wichita City Council is expected to formally support the application on Tuesday. The feds will issue $473.8 million in TIGER, or Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, grants this year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website.

Wichita Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner, who has led the city’s efforts to land passenger rail, called the application “an affirmation” of the work the city and Kansas Department of Transportation have done together to explore passenger rail’s return to Wichita.

“We’re going to have a lot of competition for the money,” Meitzner said. “There’s not a big bucket there — maybe $500 million or so — but the good news is that there are only 10 or 11 other applications that relate to passenger rail.”

The grant project, which includes $3 million in matching funds from KDOT that are contingent on $2.3 million in matching funds from Oklahoma, would “make sure this project is shovel-ready to go,” Meitzner said. It would fund the final engineering design phase of the project, gauging how much additional right of way, additional sidings — low-speed track sections for loading, unloading and storing of train cars — and rail repair would be needed.

Lindsey Douglas, KDOT’s chief of governmental and external affairs, said, “There’s certainly a large amount of interest on the part of your community to get this service for local businesses. It’s really that kind of grassroots support that has driven our support at this point.”

The Kansas Legislature also is on board, said Jerry Younger, the deputy secretary of KDOT — if Oklahoma officials, who are dealing with damage from two rounds of destructive tornadoes this spring, provide their match.

A decision on the grant should be forthcoming within 90 days, Meitzner said.

State officials were cautious in assessing the grant’s approval chances.

“All we can do is the arithmetic,” Younger said. “There are X number of requests totaling X million, and the feds only have X million available.

“Strictly on that, our chances aren’t great. Now, whether this project gets more traction because it’s passenger rail, because it’s a multi-state project, because of its location, because there’s something in the application that creates more weighting, that’s strictly up to the feds.”

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.

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