The questions about reviving passenger rail through Wichita still start with “if” rather than “when,” but hopes surged last week when Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett and Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sly James formally joined Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer in advocating for connecting the cities via passenger trains.
The mayors’ target is the 200-mile service gap between the Heartland Flyer’s northernmost stop, Oklahoma City, and the Southwest Chief’s route through Kansas north of Wichita.
In their joint letter, the mayors called on “Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas to work together to promote, plan and develop a unified passenger rail service that allows our megapolitan area to reach its economic potential.”
Among their good arguments – that thanks to technology advances, “rail passengers can convert travel time to productive business activity, unlike auto or airline passengers.”
They noted intensifying regional interest in train travel among the growing population of older folks and also young people, along with greater public awareness of the costly effects of air pollution caused by cars. And they argued that “an enhanced passenger rail system will result in greater volume for freight rail traffic, adding jobs and building capacity into our transportation infrastructure.”
The estimated $90 million in government funding that would be required could be challenging for these times, including $3 million from the Kansas Department of Transportation and $2.3 million from Oklahoma as well as federal money.
But as Cornett said last week, “Those subsidies are generally in the same conversation with the costs to build roads and highways.”
Passenger rail can and should be viewed not as a frill but as part of the region’s transportation infrastructure for the long term.
The prospect of bringing back passenger rail is a compelling local story for Wichita, of course, coinciding with the purchase of Union Station by Gary Oborny’s Occidental Management and the plans to transform the 99-year-old depot into a complex of restaurants, shops and offices. With or without passenger rail, Union Station’s reinvention promises to further downtown revitalization in a major way.
But it would be better to have passenger trains stopping at the station and bringing new visitors and activity to the city’s core.
And if the idea is going anywhere, all the affected cities and four states need to be working as one to pursue passenger rail service as regional economic development. This can’t be Wichita’s dream alone. Nor is it, thanks to the mayors and the hard work of so many others.