Proposed Oklahoma passenger rail line could boost chances Heartland Flyer comes to Wichita

A Tulsa group is weighing a privately operated passenger train line between their city and Oklahoma City, potentially removing an obstacle for Wichita’s pursuit of the Heartland Flyer.

Former Tulsa City Council member Rick Westcott, an attorney, said his group thinks the city would benefit from a public-private partnership offering passenger rail between the two cities, requiring a relatively small state investment of about $50 million for track and other upgrades.

Westcott thinks the partnership would prosper working in tandem with an Amtrak Heartland Flyer line between Oklahoma City and Wichita.

“This has the potential to be a separate operation, a separate service which would hopefully mesh with the Heartland Flyer but would not be a direct part of the route,” Westcott said. “We have never positioned our discussions here to be in competition with extending Amtrak service to Wichita and Newton. There’s no reason, setting aside the dollar costs involved, why the services should not be blended.”

That’s good news to Wichita city officials, who are pursuing necessary groundwork, with Kansas Department of Transportation officials, to bring the Heartland Flyer to Union Station.

“Those are welcome and encouraging comments,” said Wichita City Council member Pete Meitzner, who’s leading the local Heartland Flyer effort.

“Our citizens between Wichita and Tulsa have a lot of common rivalries, businesses and industries, so to know that we’d all be supportive and respectful to each other’s efforts is welcome news.”

Westcott said his group is convinced a private carrier can offer “more competitive, better service than Amtrak.”

A statewide Oklahoma passenger rail task force met over 2012, including a task force from Tulsa. Last year, the Tulsa group talked with several private carriers that showed interest; Westcott declined to identify them.

“These were people who have an established record of successful private operations … all who have a demonstrated capacity of providing service over the distance we’re requiring.”

Since the lines between Oklahoma City and Tulsa are operational, and currently under lease by a freight provider, Westcott said the tracks can be upgraded for passenger rail at the $50 million figure.

And passenger rail can be established quickly between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, he said.

“That’s one of the big things that surprised me,” he said. “One carrier we talked with said that from the date a contract might be signed, they could make the upgrades and improvements for four round trips a day and be up and running in six months.”

That’s good news to Wichita officials, who were fearful that Amtrak might favor a northeast Oklahoma route toward Missouri over any extension of the Heartland Flyer to Wichita.

“I view it as a solid understanding in Tulsa of the economic impact and value of extending real commerce down the I-35 corridor from Kansas City to San Antonio,” Meitzner said.

The Wichita City Council has signed on to efforts launched nine months ago by Meitzner to pursue the rail service, making funding more passenger rail studies a lobbying priority for the upcoming legislative session.

The effort is supported by Wichita commercial developer Gary Oborny, who purchased Union Station on Friday with plans to retain a rail terminal in the building if the Flyer comes through Wichita.

KDOT secretary Mike King and his governmental affairs chief, Lindsay Douglas, are continuing talks with Oklahoma officials about the studies necessary to pursue the Flyer. Douglas said earlier this month that Oklahoma officials had indicated more interest in the Tulsa route than a route through the center of the state into Kansas and Wichita.

Westcott said the final choice between Amtrak and a private operator lies with the Oklahoma Legislature.

“We can offer opinions and what we think are good ideas, but I recognize the Legislature makes the final call,” he said.

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