October 17, 2013

Wichita passenger rail plan picks up Texas support, Vice Mayor Meitzner says

The push to bring passenger rail back to Wichita now includes Texas officials, Wichita’s vice mayor said Thursday.

The push to bring passenger rail back to Wichita now includes Texas officials, Wichita’s vice mayor said Thursday.

Pete Meitzner, who is leading the city’s efforts to bring the Heartland Flyer back, and state Sen. Carolyn McGinn, said passenger rail service will be expensive, but a combination of federal grants and multi-state cooperation make it an achievable goal. They spoke at an American Associated of Retired Persons summit Thursday at the Hughes Metropolitan Complex.

The immediate target is about $80million to finish off work connecting Newton and Oklahoma City, a service gap in the southern route of the Flyer, Meitzner said. That money would be used in five different areas along the route to build siding, allowing a couple of passenger trains to be accommodated on what’s largely a freight route.

The biggest news out of Meitzner’s speech was the length of the proposed route – now through Dallas and San Antonio all the way to Monterrey, Mexico.

“Dallas and Texas officials now really want this to happen,” Meitzner told the group. “We’re very fortunate to be at the table.”

Meitzner said the passenger rail initiative is primarily an economic development project.

“The business community in Wichita has been very supportive of this,” he said. “The reason is productivity. They can’t have their people online or texting during a three-hour drive to Oklahoma City ... but thanks to changes in technology with Wi-Fi on trains, that time becomes productive time, billable hours where their people can work.”

Meitzner and McGinn walked the group through the funding status of the passenger rail project: City officials sought a federal grant to fund the final piece of an environmental study on the Heartland Flyer connection, but were denied.

Meitzner said the city will pursue the grant again. However, if the city and Kansas can partner with Oklahoma, the passenger rail project is doable with a bonding program, he said.

McGinn, who is the Kansas Senate’s representative to a larger regional passenger rail coalition, said that an infusion of state money from the Kansas Department of Transportation isn’t likely.

“I don’t want to rob KDOT,” she said. “We’ve created a plan for the maintenance of our infrastructure, and that’s what we should focus on.”

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