The call of “All aboard!” still seems more of a dream than a likelihood. But credit Wichita City Council member Pete Meitzner with getting things moving toward bringing passenger trains back to Wichita.
With support from his council colleagues, Meitzner has spent nine months investigating the viability of a northern route into Kansas for Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer, which now links Dallas-Fort Worth to Oklahoma City. And key elements of such an extension have started coming together.
The Kansas Department of Transportation, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration have signaled that a completed initial planning study “is a good first step that gets us in the game,” Meitzner told The Eagle, with the next necessary steps an environmental study and a regional passenger-rail workshop. An interim legislative committee also encouraged the idea in November, agreeing that passenger rail was an important investment for the state.
Meanwhile, commercial developer Gary Oborny has a letter of intent to buy the old Union Station with plans to revive its use as a rail terminal as well as renovate it into a hospitality, office and retail development.
Many challenges and uncertainties remain, starting with whether Gov. Sam Brownback will include any funds for an environmental study in the two-year budget proposal coming next week. Such a study could cost Kansas $3 million and Oklahoma $2.3 million, or less with federal help. The city’s legislative agenda “encourages the state to closely monitor future federal funding opportunities for existing and new passenger-rail service throughout the state of Kansas,” including the northern route for the Heartland Flyer.
Getting any money from the state or federal governments could prove tough, as Kansas’ new tax cuts begin to shrink revenues and Congress begins to get serious about deficit reduction. Then, of course, there is the cost of providing service, which one 2011 estimate put at more than $87 million if the Heartland Flyer operated from Newton into Texas.
Meanwhile, there is a competing effort to extend the Heartland Flyer northeast out of Oklahoma City toward Tulsa.
And if the $100 million price tag of needed track improvements for Amtrak’s Southwest Chief proves too high for Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico between now and late 2014, one alternate route out of Newton would go through Wichita and Mulvane before heading west to Amarillo. A special train is scheduled to travel from Topeka to La Junta, Colo., on Thursday, so legislators and other public officials can assess the track troubles firsthand.
For now, though, the vision that Meitzner and Oborny are sharing with others is an exciting one – of the Heartland Flyer delivering people to the heart of Wichita, driving commerce and furthering downtown revitalization, and of south-central Kansans having the new option to travel by train to Oklahoma City, Dallas and points south.
Meitzner deserves praise for his leadership – and more believers for his cause.