Advocates for passenger rail are optimistic the $2 trillion infrastructure package President Joe Biden outlined this week could speed up efforts to bring service back to Wichita.
The package includes $80 billion specifically for rail programs. Amtrak deemed the plan “what this nation has been waiting for.”
Amtrak's 15-year plan includes what local officials and advocates have pushed for for years: an extended Heartland Flyer route running from Oklahoma City through Wichita and on to Newton, where it could connect to the Southwest Chief that runs from LA to Chicago.
“It’s good news if it all comes together,” said Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Pete Meitzner, who also serves as the governor’s appointee to the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Coalition.
The infrastructure package — if Congress approves it — could help lessen the biggest hurdle to expansion: the price tag. The estimated up-front costs for track upgrades alone would be $30 million for Kansas, and about triple that for Oklahoma.
It’s also estimated both states would have to help cover any revenue shortfall — as much as $1 million each year — once service begins.
But Meitzner says the cost would be worth it to bring service to I-35 corridor.
“That’ll be an obstacle, but I don’t think it’s a big one,” he said. “You’d have to balance out the fact that there’s an elderly population that doesn’t want to drive … but they still want to travel. There’s also the youth, especially college-age, that are delaying purchasing and operating cars, and they want to travel.
“So the advantages of what this transportation mode would provide I think will justify if there’s a slight cost.”
He says cities along the route would have to make their own investments to make sure their train stations could handle the stops.
“The cities are going to have to make some of their own local decisions about investing in improvements,” he said. “However, I think that most of the cities are well on board with this.
“If I was a mayor of a city that had a stop, I think I’d be pushing that pretty hard to get that done.”
Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple says he and other leaders have been in contact with representatives from Amtrak about filling the gap in service between Oklahoma City and Wichita. The extended Heartland Flyer route would also connect south-central Kansas down to Dallas and Fort Worth, and possibly Austin and San Antonio.
“Having that easy connection with Texas is going to do wonders for us economically,” Whipple said during his weekly mayor’s briefing Thursday.
Wichita hasn’t had passenger rail service since 1979. Amtrak began a bus service from Wichita to Newton in 2016 to connect to the Southwest Chief route there.
Meitzner says there’s broad support for the rail portion of Biden’s infrastructure plan, but not necessarily the entire package. Still, he’s optimistic about the possibility it signals for the return of passenger rail service to the area well before Amtrak’s 2035 vision is complete.
“It could be a matter of a couple years if everything was a go, maybe even better than that, but it just depends,” he said. “So I think 2035 is a good long-term range, but I think it can happen much before that.”