Keeping the Southwest Chief operating through Colorado would add $31 million to the estimated $200 million price tag to retain the train on its current route, according to an economic study released Thursday.
Colorado State University-Pueblo released the economic-impact study focusing on the idea of extending the Southwest Chief route to include a Pueblo, Colo., stop before the route bends south to New Mexico, a proposal currently pending in the Colorado Legislature.
The report, commissioned by the Pueblo Area Council of Governments, projects Colorado would reap $57 million in new economic activity over the course of one decade if the Pueblo stop was added.
The study made no presumptions about how to pay for the additional expense of adding Pueblo to the route of the Chief.
“There’s still a lot of discussion about that,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace.
Much of the money that the state would pay to maintain Amtrak service involves buying new rail.
That’s the $200 million problem that lawmakers in those states are trying to solve, said Gary Carter of the Colorado Rail Passenger Association.
Colorado state Rep. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, and state Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, are pushing legislation to save the Chief.
Carter said Amtrak wants rails that can handle trains doing 80 mph.
“What we need is to replace the old rails, some of which were installed in the 1950s, with new, heavier welded rails that can handle higher speeds,” Carter said.
Replacing the rails from Newton, Kan., to Santa Fe, N.M., would cost $200 million. That would be paid with $40 million each from Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, BNSF and Amtrak, according to Carter.
“When you consider that it can cost $60 million to rebuild 20 miles of highway, modernizing that many miles of rail is a bargain by comparison,” Carter said. Garcia’s and Crowder’s efforts are aimed at creating a state financing authority to take responsibility for the track replacement in Colorado.
The legislation also would alter the current route of the Southwest Chief to bring it into Pueblo as well. Carter said the existing rails between La Junta, Pueblo and Trinidad are in comparatively good shape.
He said one challenge in adding that section to the route of the Chief would be the construction of additional rail sidings to accommodate more train traffic.
Garcia introduced legislation this week to create a financing authority to oversee Colorado’s portion of the route.
The bill was celebrated last Saturday near the train tracks behind the Pueblo Union Depot before a spirited crowd of about 100 politicians, Puebloans and people from around the region.
“We need this train . . . It’s going to be a challenge and we’ve got some work ahead of us,” Garcia said, speaking from the top side of a historical locomotive behind the depot.
Garcia said 28 legislators have cosponsored his bill.
The Southwest Chief now operates between Chicago and Los Angeles, with Colorado stops in Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad.
Garcia said adding a stop in Pueblo would increase ridership because of more people living here. “I’ll tell you what, I am ready for Pueblo to be on the Amtrak map. We have an opportunity to set this right,” said Crowder said, standing next to Garcia. “We cannot allow this to be taken out of Southeastern Colorado.”
Pueblo Commissioner Pace touted the economic impact of the route. “We have the opportunity on the steel-making side and for the (EVRAZ Pueblo) steel mill, because if we have over 200 miles of rail that need to be replaced, we have a steel mill here in Pueblo,” Pace said. “We can create a lot of jobs here.”