By HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH
The Associated Press
MISSION, Kan. (AP) — Proponents of expanding passenger rail service through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas hope an anticipated influx of federal infrastructure funding will get the the long-discussed route off the ground.
The project, which is among 39 new routes that Amtrak has proposed, calls for extending the Heartland Flyer. The train now travels south from Oklahoma City in the morning and returns in the evening, with an afternoon layover in Fort Worth, Texas.
With the expansion, one daily trip would start and end farther north in Newton, Kansas, in the early morning, traveling over tracks owned by BNSF, the largest U.S. railroad. From Newton, travelers could catch Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which travels between Chicago and Los Angeles, passing through Kansas City, Missouri, along the way.
The expansion also would add two more round trips daily between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth.
Additional proposed rail expansions could allow more travelers in the Texas Triangle of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio to connect with the Heartland Flyer, as well as the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited trains to Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles.
Amtrak President Stephen Gardner and CEO Bill Flynn touted the Heartland Flyer expansion project during a conference call this week as a high priority, saying it would add between 100,000 and 200,000 riders annually and have an estimated $64.8 million annual economic impact.
“We think the opportunities are real,” Flynn said. “They are tangible. The benefits are quantifiable. And the demand and the ridership is there.”
The plan also calls for adding stations and stops in the Kansas cities of Wichita and Arkansas City, and the Oklahoma communities of Ponca City, Perry and Guthrie. Oklahoma City and Wichita were last connected by passenger rail in 1979.
Ponca City, which also has no air service or commercial bus service, has acquired a historic depot as it prepares for the expansion. Mayor Homer Nicholson said rail service could help get seniors to doctor’s appointments and aerospace workers to jobs in the Wichita area.
“We want to continue doing anything and everything we can to get my friends from Dallas and Texas on board and get Oklahoma connected with the rest of the world via Kansas, because Kansas is the key link between the east and the west,” he said.
Advocates are pinning their hopes on President Joe Biden’s top legislative priority, a massive infrastructure investment package. Biden, who earned the nickname of “Amtrak Joe” because he rode the train almost daily between Washington and his home in Wilmington, Delaware, during his 36 years as a U.S. senator, has proposed tens of billions of dollars to tackle Amtrak’s repair backlog, improve service along the Northeast Corridor and expand service across the U.S.
But the president and Congress have been straining to reach an agreement, stuck over the scope of the package and and how to pay for it. Biden walked away from a Republican-only proposal this week after negotiators were unable to resolve differences. But now a bipartisan group of senators is huddled behind closed doors, encouraged by Biden to keep working on the effort.
That group is eyeing an infrastructure deal with $579 billion in new spending as negotiators try to strike a nearly $1 trillion deal, according to those briefed on the plan. The senators are briefing their colleagues privately and cautioned changes could still be made.
The Heartland Flyer expansion would require the construction of more stretches of double track and other upgrades, in part to ensure that passenger trains wouldn’t stall freight trains. Gardner said the capitol costs “could be in that $500 million or more range.”
One thing that has stalled the project in the past was the states were on the hook for startup expenses. Under the proposal, states wouldn’t chip in for the route until it had been operating for several years, Gardner said.
There are no estimates for what the state’s annual share of the project would ultimately be. It also is unclear when the project would be completed.