The return of passenger rail service to Wichita moves to the forefront Tuesday as the Wichita City Council continues its strategic planning for the future.
Council members are expected to approve an application for federal grant funds to help bring the Heartland Flyer back to Wichita. And rail service will be one of eight topics during a post-meeting workshop where council members continue to debate projects for the city’s plan.
Wichita seeks up to $3 million in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, 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.
Completing the environmental studies would produce a “shovel ready” project, council member Pete Meitzner said last week, to compete for further TIGER grants down the line.
Downtown rail service would be a big get as Wichita tries to attract millennials and maximize business travel, said Jason Gregory, vice president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp.
“We talk a lot about attracting young professionals, and one of their top criteria in evaluating a city is modes of transportation,” Gregory said.
And rail travel means employees can utilize Wi-Fi and work more, he said.
“It could be a really needed transportation service for our business base, allowing employees to travel from Kansas City to Texas, to places like Oklahoma City where there are a lot of flights, with the cost benefit of an employee working the whole time,” Gregory said.
Passenger rail is one of eight city needs identified in the council’s ACT ICT community engagement process in 2013 and early this year. Other key issues before the city include a new water source and a dedicated source of incentives money for job recruitment and retention.
The council’s position on most is expected to be refined by the end of the month, but city officials said last week a final decision on a water source could be delayed as negotiations continue with El Dorado for water from its reservoir.
City officials estimate that between $85 million and $135 million would be required to restore train service to Wichita — none of it coming directly from Wichita taxpayers. However, cities along the route will have to subsidize the route, estimated as much as $4.4 million annually, City Manager Robert Layton said last week.
The project has been endorsed by the Kansas and Oklahoma transportation departments, with the latter’s support coming months after Wichita officials feared that Oklahoma would partner with Burlington Northern to take the Heartland Flyer to the northeast through Tulsa.
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 last month. 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.