Posts Tagged ‘New Mexico Department of Transportation’

Amtrak, N.M., Reach Southwest Chief Deal

February 9, 2015

Amtrak President Joe Boardman has worked out an agreement with the New Mexico Department of Transportation that will keep the Southwest Chief operating on its current route for the time being.

The agreement also provides that Amtrak will not make a request for annual maintenance funding help during the 2015 Legislative Session. Amtrak may need maintenance funding help from New Mexico at a later date.

Amtrak will join New Mexico communities and counties and the NMDOT to apply for a TIGER grant under the Federal grant program when U.S. Department of Transportation opens it for 2015.

If awarded, the TIGER grant would cover New Mexico’s one-time capital investment. Those costs are currently estimated at $6.7 million. The grant request may be more if Colorado and Kansas join the application.

NM to Study Saving Southwest Chief Costs

March 19, 2014

The New Mexico legislature didn’t approve helping fund the Southwest Chief, but the New Mexico Department of Transportation will study that prospect.

A state budget signed by the governor allocates $50,000 to the Legislative Council Service to study a proposal by Amtrak for New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas to share the costs of maintaining and improving more than 600 miles of track through their states.

John Yaeger of the Legislative Council Service said legal issues will be considered as well as the costs and economic benefits of the proposal.

Amtrak has said that the three states must share the costs with it and BNSF of maintaining the route used by the Chicago-Los Angeles train. Each party would provide about $4 million annually for a decade.

BNSF has said that it will no longer maintain the route for passenger service after January 2016 because it is a lightly-used freight route.

The route passes through western Kansas, the southwest corner of Colorado and northern New Mexico.

Enrique Knell, a spokesman for the governor, said Tuesday the Transportation Department will support the study in any way possible.

“But it’s important to remember that Amtrak was created and funded by Congress since its inception, and thus, any agreement should not stick the taxpayers of New Mexico with a large tab,” Knell said.

He said New Mexico has never provided money for Amtrak’s passenger service and “any agreement needs to take that reality into account.”

Amtrak contends that it can’t cover the full cost of maintaining the present route of the Southwest Chief and will have to consider shifting the train to a more southern route along a different BNSF line if there’s no agreement on maintaining current track.

Proposed Study of SW Chief Route Advances in NM

February 7, 2014

A New Mexico legislative panel has approved a proposal to study whether the state should help pay to keep Amtrak’s Southwest Chief on its existing route, but lawmakers appear to be reluctant to immediately commit money for maintaining and improving the track.

And even if the legislature approves that funding, the state’s governor may end up having the final say on whether it will be spent to keep the Chicago-Los Angeles train in place.

The House Transportation and Public Works Committee this week agreed on a measure allocating $150,000 for a study of the costs and benefits of New Mexico joining with Colorado and Kansas to each provide about $4 million annually for 10 years to keep the Chief rolling on on its current route. Potential legal issues also would be examined.

Amtrak has warned that it will remove the Southwest Chief from its present route via Lamy and Raton, N.M., if it fails to reach a new operating agreement with BNSF Railway by 2016 for track maintenance.

BNSF has said it will no longer maintain the former Santa Fe route in western Kansas, southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico to passenger train speeds because there is little freight traffic on the line.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez’s transportation secretary-designate said the legislature should not OK underwriting the maintenance of the Chief’s route until a thorough cost-benefit analysis has been conducted and possible constitutional snags are reconciled.

Some supporters of the proposal to pay to maintain the BNSF tracks for passenger service fear that funding will hinge on the Republican governor’s support. Martinez has said in recent months that Amtrak is funded by Congress and any agreement should not leave New Mexico taxpayers with a large bill.

“According to the New Mexico [Department of Transportation], the state has never provided state funds for Amtrak service,” Martinez’s office said last month. “We’re willing to work together on this issue, but any agreement needs to take that reality into account.”

New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas are mulling whether to split track maintenance costs to keep the train on its present route. The states would have to provide about $4 million a year each for a decade.

“As far as the legislative part, the committee, there’s not a problem,” said Rep. Roberto Gonzales, the chair of the House Transportation and Public Works Committee. “To my knowledge, nobody has come out and said, ‘I can’t support that.’ Our hurdle is the Governor’s Office.” Even if his bill advances, the governor could veto it in the end.

In Colorado, Eric Brown, a spokesman for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, says the Democrat wants to keep the passenger train going and expand its route.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, says his state cannot agree to help fund the route if the other states aren’t on board with funding.

“We are studying this and have had conversations with Amtrak, BNSF, Colorado, and New Mexico, but all parties would need to be at the table financially to make this work,” says Eileen Hawley, Brownback’s spokeswoman.

If no funding agreement is reached by the end of 2015, the Southwest Chief train will likely shift to BNSF’s ex-Santa Fe “Transcon” main line through Amarillo, Texas. That would mean that Albuquerque would be the largest city to lose direct service, although the train would still pass through the city’s metropolitan area.

“I believe everyone needs to do their homework and come back next year,” New Mexico transportation chief Tom Church told The New Mexican.

Church said provisions in the New Mexico Constitution could prohibit the state from using public funds to subsidize a private railroad, and the estimated cost of the project is a moving target that worries the Martinez administration.

“We really don’t know how much it’s going to cost,” Church said.

Elected officials from communities on the line’s current route said there is no time to wait. They urged the House Transportation and Public Works Committee to support a cost-sharing agreement among New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Amtrak and BNSF.  It carries an estimated cost of about $4 million annually over the next decade from each entity beginning next year.

“Northern New Mexico cannot afford to see the rail line abandoned due to the devastating impacts this will have on future economic development projects that depend upon freight service,” said Colfax County Commissioner Bill Sauble.

The committee passed House Bill 241 on to the House Appropriations Committee with a “do pass” recommendation, but not without reservations.

Some lawmakers on the panel are reluctant to spend state money on the project and squabbled over whether support for the project should come from the general fund or severance tax revenue. Others questioned whether towns and counties along the route should raise taxes to pay for the plan themselves.

Ray Lang, chief of state government relations at Amtrak, said he is optimistic about the prospects of a five-way partnership to keep the Southwest Chief’s existing route.

Legislation authorizing the cooperative agreement is working its way through statehouses in New Mexico and Colorado, and legislation is expected to be introduced in Kansas.

BNSF’s  contract with Amtrak expires in January 2016. Virtually all of the track between Hutchinson, Kan., and Lamy, just outside Santa Fe, needs to be replaced, Lang said. Attempts to secure federal funding to ensure the continued operation of the Southwest Chief along its current route have been fruitless.

NM Officials Seek Support to Keep SW Chief

November 9, 2013

New Mexico public officials are pressing ahead with an effort to provide funding to keep Amtrak’s Southwest Chief operating on its current route through the state.

Officials from Raton and Colfax counties plan to ask the New Mexico State Transportation Infrastructure Finance Subcommittee at a meeting on Tuesday (Nov. 12) in Santa Fe for support.

Colfax County Board of Commissioners Vice-Chair Bill Sauble said there is broad legislative support for keeping the Chicago-Los Angeles train operating through the northeast part of the state.

The State Transportation Infrastructure Finance Subcommittee is a joint interim legislative committee whose purpose is to “examine freight-specific strategies, including financing options, and review other options to identify new transportation financing strategies for the state.”

The Southwest Chief runs for 431 miles in New Mexico with stops in Raton, Las Vegas and Gallup.

Amtrak’s contract with BNSF, which owns the former Santa Fe route used by the Chief in northeastern New Mexico, southwestern Colorado and western Kansas, will expire in January 2016.

At that point, BNSF would no longer be required to maintain the route for 79 mph operation. Amtrak has asked New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas to come up with $94.4 million, which is 20 percent of the cost of proposed route upgrades, plus an additional $11 million per year for the next 10 years for track maintenance.

Sauble, who represents Colfax County on a steering committee of the three-state Southwest Chief Coalition, has suggested that the $94 million one-time payment be divided equally among the three states and that $11 million annual maintenance costs be divided evenly. He also has that Amtrak put up 20 percent of the cost, BNSF put up 20 percent of the cost, and each of the three states “kick in 20 percent.”

“There is a property tax collected on the railroad,” Sauble told the Raton City Commission on Oct. 8, adding that the state might dedicate a portion of its tax revenue from the railroad to railway maintenance.

The New Mexico Department of Transportation is working on a five-year state rail plan that will set state policy regarding passenger and freight rail transportation.