Heartland Flyer May Lose Oklahoma Funding

Faced with a funding shortfall, Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, may be in danger of discontinuance.

The state pays Amtrak $2.9 million to operate the train and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation said that is expected to increase to $3.2 million

“Why are we doing this?” asked Senate Appropriations Chairman Clark Jolley, R-Edmond. “Is it more effective and efficient to invest in maintenance and roads that are used more? There is consistent criticism that there is no reason to support rail.”

Patronage of the train, which began in 1999 was 26,832 in its first year. It reached 87,873 in 2012, but has since fallen to 81,226.

Oklahoma and Texas pay 75 percent of the cost of a trip to Fort Worth on the train, which is operated by Amtrak, said Mike Patterson, ODOT executive director.

“Every public transit program in the country and most likely in the whole world is subsidized at some level,” Patterson said. “The governing body has to decide how much they want to participate in that subsidy.”

Patterson said the state’s cost has increased because Amtrak’s contribution to the route has fallen. Amtrak has also warned that raising fares would likely reduce ridership.

Oklahoma lawmakers are seeking ways to make up a $611 million drop in revenue for the state overall, hence the talk of ending state funding of Amtrak service.

Texas has limited its contributions to the Heartland Flyer at $2.5 million.

Amtrak and Oklahoma are operating under a month-to-month contract, and ODOT officials hope Amtrak will reduce the cost, but that might only be possible with fewer train trips.

ODOT Division Engineer John Bowman said the agency has worked with Amtrak to find cost reductions without decreasing service, such as removing one of two locomotives or decreasing the number of passenger cars during non-peak times. However, those changes can only go so far.

“We’ve been going back and forth with [Amtrak] since July on working with those numbers, and we have had some success,” Bowman says. “But more needs to be done.”

Texas transportation officials have explored the possibility of using buses to replace some rail service, an option ODOT says it hopes not to do.

“We have not had much discussion about that,” Patterson said. “I was approached in November from the leadership in TxDOT that they were looking at that type of arrangement. We are making every effort to come up with a solution, but it’s got to be Amtrak’s solution.”

As for a private company taking over management of the Heartland Flyer, Patterson said that would be difficult. “There’s been some discussion about bringing in another carrier,” Patterson says. “But my understanding is that BNSF or any of the Class I operators [along the Heartland Flyer route] want to only let Amtrak run on their line because of the liability issues.”

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