April 29, 2014

Oklahoma officials back Wichita’s passenger rail efforts

Add Oklahoma officials to the list supporting City Hall’s bid to bring passenger rail back to Wichita.

Add Oklahoma officials to the list supporting City Hall’s bid to bring passenger rail back to Wichita.

Officials from the Kansas Department of Transportation and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation released a joint statement Tuesday supporting the extension of the Heartland Flyer north up the I-35 corridor through Wichita and Newton, establishing an “economic powerhouse of a corridor for industry and commercial business.”

Wichita 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 on the I-35 corridor. The plan would close a 185-mile service gap from Oklahoma City to Wichita and could potentially connect the Heartland Flyer with the Southwest Chief, which now stops in Newton on its way to Kansas City.

The statement endorses the city’s application – to be made this week – for grant funding to complete planning for the project.

“The departments of transportation in Kansas and Oklahoma are pleased to support the efforts of the city of Wichita,” the statement reads.

“This work is the next step toward efforts to extend the Heartland Flyer passenger rail service that currently operates between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth. Once implemented, the extended passenger rail service and the improvements to the rail line would provide improved transportation access for businesses and citizens, create numerous economic development opportunities throughout the corridor, and improve the efficiency and reliability of freight movement on the rail line.

“The extension would ... connect important economic hubs including Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, Wichita, Topeka, Kansas City and Chicago,” the statement says.

The joint statement is one of the biggest pieces of support yet for the Heartland Flyer project, said Wichita City Council member Pete Meitzner, who leads the city’s efforts to restore train service.

It comes just months after Wichita officials feared that Oklahoma would partner with Burlington Northern to take the Heartland Flyer to the northeast through Tulsa.

“This is a significant addition by far to the TIGER grant process,” Meitzner said. “Having the departments of transportation in both states publicly supporting this effort is greatly appreciated.”

Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., and Occidental Management developer Chad Stafford called the decision a key to enhancing Wichita’s economic growth. Occidental is redeveloping Union Station, which would be the likely home of a Wichita terminal for the Heartland Flyer.

“The biggest thing is the I-35 corridor,” Stafford said. “It creates quite an economic powerhouse for industry and commercial business. That’s the big piece of this thing. Upgrading the lines for commercial and industrial business is just huge.”

“It’s just a tremendous piece of support,” Fluhr said. “It’s demonstrating a multi-state commitment to make the region vibrant and help our cities.”

The planning study is the final step toward a “shovel-ready” project to bring rail service to Wichita.

If the city’s grant is approved, Meitzner said, matching funding will be coordinated through the departments of transportation and will include 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.

Fluhr said the regional aspect of the application should enhance the chances of receiving the grant.

“It’s about preparing for the opportunity,” he said. “This tells them that this is a regional application, rather than just a local one, and it enhances our chances to remain competitive to create jobs in this economy.”

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