January 11, 2014

Tulsa-OKC line could derail Wichita’s passenger rail plans

A new obstacle has arisen in Oklahoma to passenger rail’s return to Wichita.

A new obstacle has arisen in Oklahoma to passenger rail’s return to Wichita.

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is taking bids until Jan. 30 on a 97-mile stretch of rail between Oklahoma City and suburban Tulsa called the “Sooner Sub.” It’s largely a freight line but could potentially take a future chunk of the Heartland Flyer route away from Wichita.

Meanwhile, a partnership including Watco – a private railroading firm in Pittsburg – will offer the Eastern Flyer, a $70 passenger ride this month, to gauge interest in passenger rail service between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Watco and its partners are expected to bid for the line.

But Rick Westcott – a former Tulsa City Council member and a representative on the city’s rail advisory board – thinks Burlington Northern will win the rail auction.

“And based upon the Burlington Northern business model … – if they get it – they will probably limit passenger rail on it to only service provided by Amtrak,” Westcott said. “If they do, then the Heartland from Oklahoma City will be headed there.”

BN officials did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

The rail line bidding is the latest obstacle before Wichita Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner, who has spearheaded the city’s efforts to bring the Heartland Flyer through Wichita and Newton on its way through to Kansas City.

City officials think a Heartland Flyer stop in downtown Wichita – perhaps at Union Station as it converts to an office and retail center – could enhance economic development downtown at a time when more visitors are essential to its revitalization.

“It just kind of echoes what I’ve been concerned about from the beginning,” Meitzner said. “If we’re not actively engaged, the world of passenger rail will go other places.”

Shelby Smith, a former Kansas lieutenant governor who fought passenger rail’s departure from Kansas in the 1970s, said the Heartland Flyer’s return is essential to the state’s economic development.

“Wichita benefits the most, but it’s for the whole state,” Smith said.

But Kansas is late to the passenger rail party, he said.

“Oklahoma and Texas have restored passenger rail, and it’s taken us 10 years longer. Ten years too long,” he said.

“In 1979, when this service was discontinued, this line had the fifth-highest ridership. Certainly, there’s a need for it.”

Westcott said there’s support in Tulsa – including on the city council – for a partnership between a private line between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and a Heartland Flyer route running north through Kansas.

“Our position has always been passenger rail doesn’t have to be an either/or with Wichita and Tulsa,” he said. “We’ve never made any statements that it has to be Tulsa only.

“There’s no reason, we don’t think, why passenger rail can’t extend both directions.”

But there’s still work to be done in Topeka to get Wichita back in the game. Part of the Wichita City Council’s 2014 legislative agenda is state funding for an environmental study on the northbound Heartland Flyer line, the last step in a project to bring passenger rail back to Wichita.

“That money would really be helpful,” Meitzner said. “We’re really appreciative of what the Legislature has authorized thus far. Mike King (Kansas Department of Transportation secretary) and KDOT have been very helpful and supportive.

“I don’t see them standing in our way at all.”

Meitzner said he understands the needs of Oklahomans. But he’s asking them to think like Westcott – regionally.

“I do respect the fact that Oklahoma has two major population centers – Oklahoma City and Tulsa – so they owe it to their citizens to do what’s best for the state,” he said.

“But for the nation and the region – and what’s best for us – the best thing is to connect us to Oklahoma and Texas.”

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