NM Legislature Fails to Act on SW Chief Funding

The hopes of supporters of keeping the Southwest Chief on its present route took a hit on Thursday when the New Mexico legislature adjourned without approving a bill that would contribute state funding toward rebuilding the tracks used by the Chicago-Los Angeles train.

Although the House had earlier approved such legislation, the Senate did not act.

Five bills that sought solutions for keeping the Chief on its historic ex-Santa Fe route via Raton, Lamy and Las Vegas, N.M., failed to pass.

However, in adopting a state budget, the legislature authorized a study and collaboration between the state’s Transportation Department and its counterparts in Kansas and Colorado, which also stand to lose stops on the Southwest Chief line if it is rerouted in 2016.

“I am disappointed, because I feel like there’s so much at stake, not only for my district but for all of New Mexico,” said Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, who represents several Northern New Mexico counties. “Fortunately, Amtrak’s lease with BNSF doesn’t expire for more than a year, so we will have one more bite at the apple. Unfortunately, the agreement we had worked on with the other states required all parties to come to the table, and the failure of these bills to pass kind of communicated to the other states that New Mexico wasn’t willing to make that investment.”

The three states along with Amtrak and BNSF have been in discussions about a cost-sharing arrangement in which each entity would contribute an estimated $4 million annually for 10 years. If a deal cannot be reached, the Southwest Chief might be rerouted via more southerly path through Amarillo, Texas.

Also standing to lose service are Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad, Colo.; and Garden City, Dodge City and Hutchinson, Kan.

“Time has always been of the essence, and I don’t think this is ideal,” Colorado state Rep. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, said when he learned New Mexico had not passed funding provisions for the train. “Does it give any of us the wiggle room we’d like? No. But it doesn’t mean the end of this.”

Garcia is pushing legislation in Colorado to the save the route of the Southwest Chief. That bill unanimously cleared its first committee vote last week.

New Mexico Transportation Secretary Tom Church has said he favors waiting a year before making a commitment to fund the project so a study can be conducted to assess the train’s economic impact on New Mexico relative to the investment. The study will be conducted before the start of the next legislative session in January 2015.

Identifying a funding strategy could be part of the study. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has been reluctant to commit state money to the project. She has said Amtrak historically has been funded by the federal government and that should guide decisions in New Mexico about the passenger train’s future.

Roch said everything from localized taxes in communities that benefit from the line to expanded private-sector use of the rails is being eyed as a possible solution. Identifying an industry to use lease the line for cargo transport in order to make maintaining the track more appealing to BNSF would be optimal, he said.

“I think that’s where our best hope lies,” Roch said. “I’ve engaged the governor directly on that. She’s committed to support those efforts. That would fix the issue without an investment of tax dollars.”

Garden City, Kan., Mayor Dan Frankhauser said he is worried about the partner states’ ability to find money for the track rebuilding and the fast-approaching deadline.

“Waiting another year, that’s going to be cutting it right down to the wire,” he said. “We’re all going to have to make some decisions. It’s going to be here before we know it.”

Supporters of the passenger line cannot dwell on what didn’t get done, but should turn their attention to what needs to happen next to sustain it, Roch said.

“All hope is not lost,” he said. “I’m optimistic that the state of New Mexico will step up for those communities that will be devastated if the Southwest Chief is rerouted.”

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