Amtrak, BNSF and state officials are putting their faith in a high-demand federal transportation grant to maintain rail service in south Kansas west of Newton.
Railroad and state transportation officials are placing their bet to save rural passenger train service along the Southwest Chief line on a federal grant with requests 15 times larger than the pool of available money.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's TIGER grant program makes $600 million available to the federal agency to spend at its discretion. The agency received 797 applications by states and municipalities asking for a total of $9.5 billion.
Despite those odds, the chief executives of Amtrak, BNSF and the Kansas Department of Transportation are optimistic in the project's chances they said during a whistle-stop tour of the line where they met, and traveled with, state and local officials.
The tour represented, at least, a change in message and a unity among the major players in the bid to maintain the passenger service — the railroad company BNSF that owns and maintains the lines, Amtrak that provides passenger train service and the states of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.
"I'm optimistic … that the federal legislators will understand how important this is," Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman said at the Santa Fe Depot, Friday afternoon.
"We want to stay here," Boardman said.
If the three governments, Amtrak and BNSF can't reach an agreement to improve the aging lines by the end of the year, Amtrak may shift service off of the line and onto the major Southern Transcon freight line, bypassing the Kansas depots west of Newton.
The shift is predicated by declining track conditions that prevent Amtrak trains from travelling at the contractual speed capability of 79 miles per hour. Upgrading the line for those speeds is expected to cost about $200 million over 10 years. Earlier proposals attempted to split the cost equally among the five players, but would have been the first time states directly funded the Amtrak service.
Kansas Secretary of Transportation Mike King said the state is expanding its pitch beyond passenger service — states subsidizing federal passenger rail was always a tough sell — and focusing instead on the freight capabilities that would be lost through south Kansas.
"For me, it's as much of a freight issue as a passenger rail issue," King said.
The state transportation department is "totally, 100 percent focused" on getting the grant by allocating $3 million of state money to capture $15 million from the TIGER program, King said. Another roughly $6 million would come from private investment or local sources, a change from the earlier equal five-way split plan.
Of that $3 million from the state, "Quite frankly, I'm investing much more of that in freight," King added.
Before the oil boom, the line that passes through Dodge City saw two to three trains pass through, daily. Now it's not rare to see seven, King said.
If Amtrak service through Dodge City is not saved, King said he did not expect BNSF to continue maintaining the lines even at a slower freight level, which would cut the region out of the freight rail network.
Though the pitch and partnership is a new development, unchanged is officials' willingness to discuss what happens if the federal grant application fails and the December 31, 2014, deadline to put cash on the table passes.
"There really isn't a 'Plan B' at the moment," King said, though he's optimistic because the rail-related application "meets a lot of checkboxes the U.S. Department of Transportation is trying to meet."
When asked if the state transportation department has gotten support from the state's federal delegation, including Rep. Tim Huelskamp who opposes additional Amtrak funding, King said at this point it makes more sense for the state agency to be leading the Kansas effort.
"When the time is right we'll get them involved," he said.
The rephrasing of the pitch, from strictly passenger benefits to primarily freight benefits, may gain the generally hawkish Kansas delegation's support. Another purpose of the tour was to attract community attention, perhaps to put pressure on the federal delegation to back spending connected to Amtrak.
"What we're looking for is federal rail investment in Kansas," King said.
Saving the passenger rail service has been one of the major issues lobbied for by Dodge City and Garden City leaders. Dodge City Manager Cherise Tieben boarded the special train in Hutchinson and exited with a renewed sense of optimism.
"Before it seemed we were talking to everybody (the five players) separately but they weren't talking to each other," Tieben said. "I am optimistic, more now than I was before," she added.
Of the state's $3 million matching contribution for the TIGER grant, Dodge City and Garden City contributed $50,000. The cities also contributed $20,000 each to the lobbying firm Alston and Bird to press the issue in Washington and met with federal transportation officials and elected officials during its annual trip to the capital.
In 2013, Amtrak reported 50,146 boardings and alightings in Kansas, including 5,149 in Dodge City and 7,355 in Garden City.