Panel Discusses Heartland Flyer Extension Into Kansas

What it would take to extend Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer into Kansas was discussed during a Jan. 22 meeting of the Ways and Means Committee of the Kansas legislature.

What emerged from that meeting was an outline of how Amtrak hopes to implement the proposed new corridor routes that CEO Richard Anderson has been touting over the past year.

Spoiler alert: It will take the cooperation of Congress and various state legislatures.

Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs, acknowledged that cost barriers to starting corridor service are high.

“We tend to find that they are higher than a state can afford,” Lang said.

He noted that host railroad BNSF is working with Amtrak and the Kansas Department of Transportation to determine the cost of extending the Flyer from its northern terminus of Oklahoma City into Kansas.

The Heartland Flyer currently operates daily between Oklahoma City and Fort, Worth, Texas, with funding from the states of Oklahoma and Texas.

The extension into Kansas would serve Wichita and end in Newton where it would connect with the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Some proposals have been floated to have the Heartland Flyer run to Kansas City.

Lang indicated that whatever the numbers are in that report, they are likely to be more than what Kansas is willing to pay.

He said Amtrak is expected to propose that Congress establish a federal grant program of billions of dollars that would help states pay for capital costs of starting new routes.

Grant money would also be available for states to pay the operating losses of the new routes in the early years of service.

“The Heartland Flyer corridor is certainly one of the places that we think would be a perfect place to invest capital money from this billion-dollar grant program,” Lang said.

There are currently 17 states that pay Amtrak to provide intercity rail passenger service. Lang said half of Amtrak ridership is aboard state-funded trains.

KDOT Deputy Secretary Lindsey Douglas told the committee there is a path forward for the Heartland Flyer extension once the capital investment figures are released.

He offered to prepare a summary sheet of the costs after the BNSF-Amtrak-KDOT study is completed.

“The new federal grant program would open up a lot of doors to get this project funded,” Douglas said.

Lang demurred when asked by Senator Carolyn McGinn, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, about Amtrak’s efforts to replace the Southwest Chief in portions of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico with buses.

“We’re very proud of the long-distance trains,” Lang said. “The growth opportunities are in short-distance regional trains, which is why we’d love to extend the Heartland Flyer north of Oklahoma City to Wichita, Kansas, and connect with the Southwest Chief in Newton.”

In other words, there is no assurance the bus bridge idea will not resurface once the current federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

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