August 26, 2013

Kansas and Wichita officials participate in six-state talks to expand passenger rail service

More states want a seat at the table if passenger rail service expands again across the Plains and South.

More states want a seat at the table if passenger rail service expands again across the Plains and South.

Transportation officials from Arkansas and Louisiana joined officials from Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas last Wednesday at the first meeting of a six-state passenger rail consortium in Arlington, Texas. Wichita Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner, city governmental affairs director Dale Goter and KDOT officials represented Kansas. More meetings are planned between the six states, but none are scheduled.

The city of Wichita is part of a three-city effort including Kansas City and Oklahoma City to extend the Heartland Flyer up the I-35 corridor. 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. City officials say the grants should be awarded “any day.”

“It was really healthy to see what all the states were doing,” Meitzner said. “To me, it reiterates that we need to be pretty active.”

With numerous large cities – Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and New Orleans – jousting for improved passenger rail travel, it’s daunting, Meitzner said, to “be the littlest circle on the map, so to speak.”

But the vice mayor said that Wichita’s geographic position in the middle of the key I-35 economic corridor should trump any concerns about its relatively small size as a population center.

“The I-35 corridor became more apparent as a key economic corridor for cargo movement of rail, along with its traffic counts,” Meitzner said. “I mean, we’re talking right now about San Antonio to Kansas City, and Texas is looking at connecting all the way into Monterrey, Mexico.”

Lindsey Douglas, KDOT’s director of governmental regulations, said the state delegation found the meeting useful.

“I think it’s very encouraging that Texas provided a forum for everyone to get together and face-to-face talk about all the routes being studied,” she said. “It’s always a good idea to collaborate, to hear what we all have going on so we’re not stepping on each other.”

One focus of the meeting, Meitzner said, is making passenger rail service compatible with the cargo traffic already on the route.

“You get a sense that we need to be very respectful of the massive amount of freight that moves along these tracks,” he said. “We’re talking one or two passenger trains a day moving a few hundred people, a fraction of the tons of cargo that moves all the time along the route at a much higher economic impact.”

But track improvements for passenger rail would enhance the freight business along the route, the vice mayor said.

Wichita’s interest is part of a broader collection of studies along the length of the line, from the Texas state line 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.

Kansas will continue to be an active player in the consortium, Douglas said.

“As there are future meetings, we want to be at the table. It was a good thing to go and be engaged,” Douglas said. “We don’t want to be sitting on our hands.”

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