Wichita city officials to apply again for rail service grant

05/11/2014 10:28 AM

08/06/2014 11:07 AM

City officials plan to apply again this week for a federal grant to bring passenger rail service back to Wichita.

The city seeks up to $3 million in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant funds to complete environmental studies on the Heartland Flyer route connecting Wichita with Oklahoma City down the I-35 corridor. When those studies are complete, the passenger rail service project will be “shovel-ready,” City Council member Pete Meitzner said.

The plan would connect the Heartland Flyer with the Southwest Chief line and close a 185-mile service gap from Oklahoma City to Wichita.

The city, which was turned down in September in its first bid for federal transportation money, is better prepared this time, Meitzner said. The application will include letters of support from along the route, including from Arkansas City; Newton; Ponca City, Okla.; and Perry, Okla.

Wichita and Kansas are part of a six-state consortium studying passenger rail expansion in the South and the Great Plains. In addition, the mayors of Wichita, Oklahoma City and Kansas City have a joint letter of cooperation to extend the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City through Wichita to Kansas City.

Federal officials have told the city its chances are better the second time around for the grant money.

“We did a review with federal transportation and TIGER officials on our last application,” Meitzner said. “We wanted to know what we could do to improve the last one.”

Meitzner said federal officials said the first application was good but that Wichita wanted planning funds, not project funds. The 2013 TIGER program had no planning funds; this time around, $35 million of the $550 million in grants is designated for planning.

“It was a great quality application,” he said. “The problem was there was no money in the TIGER grant for planning.”

Meitzner said the study is estimated to cost between $4.5 million and $5.5 million.

Oklahoma transportation officials have not signed on – despite the support of their communities along the route – as they weigh a proposal to run the Heartland Flyer through Tulsa instead.

Rick Westcott, a Tulsa attorney who has been heavily involved in Oklahoma passenger rail efforts, downplayed his state’s interest in bringing the Heartland Flyer through Tulsa. Oklahoma Department of Transportation officials did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

The TIGER grants, which should be awarded in July or August, are very competitive, Meitzner said. Applications for the 2013 grants totaled more than $9 billion, well above the money set aside for the program. The Transportation Department received 585 applications from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam.

Kansas City, Mo., officials received $20 million to build a two-mile streetcar line from the River Market area to the Crown Center/Union Station area through the Main Street corridor. It was their third attempt at TIGER money.

TIGER grants, going into their sixth round, are among the only federal funding sources for large projects that often are not suitable for other federal funding. They are often matched by money from other sources, including private sector partners, states, local governments, metropolitan planning organizations and transit agencies.

The 2013 TIGER round supported $1.8 billion in overall project investments, according to federal reports last year.

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