Opinion Columns & Blogs

Shelby Smith: Passenger rail is a great economic opportunity

The studies of passenger rail's potential benefits to Kansas are complete. The federal monies in support of passenger rail lie in wait, ready for use by states willing to compete on a regional basis. A major economic opportunity presents itself for Kansas.

A quick summary of the facts:

* The University of Kansas School of Business' financial-impact study has projected an economic impact of $3.20 for every $1 invested in infrastructure for and operation of passenger-rail service along a route that would bring trains up from Oklahoma City through Wichita to Kansas City.

* The Oklahoma experience with trains between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City has been particularly reassuring. Towns along that route in Oklahoma averaged $4 million in expanded economic activity the first year after the trains' arrival.

* The Kansas Department of Transportation has conducted an economic-impact analysis of expanded passenger-rail service, a comprehensive study that shows positive numbers on return of investment, short- and long-term growth, and overall stimulation of the Kansas economy.

* The Federal Railroad Administration has made it clear that states that are working with neighboring states to establish a regional plan for passenger rail will receive priority funding. Interstate agreements are sometimes difficult; time is of the essence, requiring Gov. Mark Parkinson's attention now.

* Amtrak has presented its financial-feasibility study, which projects an estimated annual ridership of 174,000 passengers for a route with daytime stops in Lawrence, Topeka, Emporia, Newton, Wichita and Arkansas City. The trains pulling into Wichita would have a southbound arrival at 11:04 a.m. and northbound arrival at 2:36 p.m. That's a perfect schedule for passengers embarking from the state's largest city.

* Federal start-up funds required for necessary upgrades to track and the purchase of new equipment, both locomotives and passenger cars, amount to a whopping $479 million, requiring a $41 million state match. The annual state operating subsidy is only $6.1 million.

* The state's new 10-year, $8.2 billion comprehensive transportation plan makes no reference to restoring passenger-rail service.

Kansas' active pursuit of expanded passenger rail is being lost amid the shouts and shoves of an election year. As taxpayers, we must challenge every candidate for state and federal office to commit to state subsidy of operating expenses for new passenger-rail service.

Our new governor, in particular, will play a crucial role in leading the state to take advantage of this economic activity. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate, state Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, is on record supporting expanded passenger-rail service. The position of the GOP candidate, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., is unclear.

In the madness of the current federal deficit, here is an economic opportunity for Kansas with a demonstrated 3-to-1 payback. And in these days, that's a return on investment to be celebrated.