NM House OKs Funding SW Chief Route Work

The New Mexico House of Representatives approved legislation this week that would authorize the state to spend $40 million to keep Amtrak’s Southwest  Chief on its current route via Raton, Las Vegas and Lamy, N.M.

The money would come from oil and gas revenues. The bill must now be approved by the state senate. However, the legislature is set to adjourn later this week and the fate of the Chief funding bill in that chamber is uncertain.

In Colorado, legislation to create a financing authority for that state’s $40 million share of track improvements is making its way through the House.

Amtrak has called for the states of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas to help fund $200 million in rail improvements to the BNSF Railway lines that make up the Southwest Chief’s current route.

The three states would contribute equal shares toward the track upgrades and those amounts would be matched by BNSF and Amrak.

The bill passed by the New Mexico House makes that state’s contribution contingent on the other parties providing their share of the total cost.

The parties must reach a funding agreement by the end of 2014 or else Amtrak might reroute the train to a more southerly BNSF route through Oklahoma and Texas in early 2016.

The New Mexico bill, which passed on Tuesday on a 47-12 vote, would authorize the issuance of severance tax bonds between 2016 and 2025.

“Someone has to start, and I think that once they see the seriousness of a commitment from the state of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas will follow,” said bill sponsor Roberto Gonzales said.

“So many times we overlook the needs of the smaller communities,” said Rep. Don Tripp, R-Socorro. “And this is an issue where we’re dealing with the lifeblood of a community – actually a region.”

Gonzales said that there are no provisions for the Southwest Chief project in the state budget.

Rep. James White, R-Albuquerque, said he supports keeping the Chief on its present route, but questioned using severance tax for bonds to pay for it because the bonding capacity on mineral-extraction revenues in the state is nearing its limit.

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