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The Return Of Passenger Rail Could Mean Big Things For Towns Like Ark City — If Congress Makes It A Reality

ark city depot
Nadya Faulx
A cargo train passes by a mostly vacant depot in Arkansas City. The town is hoping the potential return of passenger rail could be an economic boost.

South-central Kansas has been missing from Amtrak's map for decades. President Joe Biden's massive infrastructure plan could bring passenger service back to the region.

Sitting in the middle of Wilson Park near downtown Arkansas City is a massive, black steam engine from 1910.

The city restored the old Atchison Northern Santa Fe locomotive in 2008. It’s a symbol of the importance the rail industry has played in Ark City’s 150-year history.

“Rail is part of what our city was built on,” said Andrew Lawson, the city’s public information officer. “The rail’s always been here.”

ark city locomotive 2.JPG
Nadya Faulx
A restored steam engine sits in Wilson Park in Arkansas City.

But, like the rest of south-central Kansas, the town hasn’t had passenger rail service since 1979. Amtrak ended its Lone Star route between Chicago and Houston, leaving a sprawling gap from Oklahoma City to Wichita.

Some Ark City residents remember when the trains still passed through.

“My dad was a railroader, and so a couple of times in my childhood we rode the passenger train,” said Pam Crain, the head of Visit Ark City. “And so it would just be really neat to be able to have that opportunity here in Ark City, to be able to catch it here.”

President Joe Biden’s massive infrastructure plan — which includes more than $60 billion just for rail — is giving a boost to a years-long effort to bring passenger rail back to the region.

On Amtrak’s long wish list of new and improved rail service is the Heartland Flyer, which makes one trip a day between Dallas and Oklahoma City. Advocates — and Amtrak — want to extend the route north to Newton and increase service, passing through Guthrie and Ponca City in Oklahoma, and Wichita and Ark City on the Kansas side of the tracks.

That could mean big things for Ark City, a rural town of about 12,000 people located 17 miles from I-35.

“It would absolutely be an economic driver,” said Ark City Mayor Scott Rogers. “And I think that's one thing that excites lot of these communities between Oklahoma City in Wichita … Everyone already goes to those communities. So it's nice for them to come and experience what these smaller communities have to offer.”

ark city downtown.JPG
Nadya Faulx
Arkansas City's historic downtown district

Crain, with Visit Ark City, agrees.

“The history of our nation, you look and see … where the rail rates went through, that's where the prosperity was,” she said. “And so, you know, it would be naive for us to think that them coming through and stopping will not be some kind of a positive impact on our community.”

Ark City’s not the only town on board (pun intended). So are Wichita, Hutchinson, and Sedgwick County.

A dozen cities and organizations in Kansas and Oklahoma have passed resolutions of support this year for extending the Heartland Flyer. The Kansas and Oklahoma legislatures also passed resolutions supporting the “development, funding and implementation” of the extension.

The desire is there. The funding is another story.

“You don't need to waste your time thinking about trying to find some legislation for passenger rail,” Kansas Department of Transportation Secretary Julie Lorenz told a passenger rail commission earlier this year. “We have authorizing legislation that’s needed.

“What we need is money.”

Amtrak officials estimate it’ll cost about $500 million to update the tracks to handle passenger trains and increase frequency of service. Lorenz said track updates would run about $30 million on the Kansas side, and about triple that in Oklahoma — and that’s just the upfront cost. Eventually the states would have to take on the cost of operations.

But even with the hefty price tag, advocates like Deborah Fischer with the Northern Flyer Alliance in Kansas say it’s worth it.

“The fact that the legislatures of both states want it, the mayors and community members want it, and the federal government has said they’re going to pay for it,” she said, “I mean, I don’t know a better formula, honestly.”

Republican Rep. Ron Estes, who represents south-central Kansas, said in a statement that the “common sense extension” of the Heartland Flyer would be a “win for our region.”

And Sen. Jerry Moran expressed support on a call with Amtrak in June, calling the investment “invaluable to Kansans.”

But the infrastructure plan still faces opposition in Congress: Moran was part of a bipartisan group that worked with Biden to renegotiate his proposal, from $2 trillion down to about $1.2 trillion. But he voted against the bill when it passed the Senate last month. The House has yet to vote.

Fischer says many politicians don’t see rail as infrastructure.

“We are trying to work with the Kansas and Oklahoma congressional delegates to change their position on that,” she said. “This is infrastructure. There’s no doubt about it. It’s infrastructure, and it’s good for the economy. It’s good for jobs. It’s good for families.”

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Nadya Faulx
Pam Crain, Mayor Scott Rogers and Andrew Lawson are hopeful passenger rail will return to Ark City.

In Ark City, officials aren’t just waiting around on Congress. Rogers, the mayor, said they’ve already talked to BNSF about using the northern end of a small, worn depot a few blocks away from the historic downtown. The city wants to convert it into a coffee and snack shop where passengers can wait for the next train.

Beyond that, there’s not much else Arkansas City can do until rail funding comes through – and Amtrak can start work on the Heartland Flyer extension.

“We can only do so much here and show our support up to so much,” Rogers said, “but it ultimately falls on D.C. and the federal level.”

Nadya Faulx is KMUW's Digital News Editor and Reporter, which means she splits her time between working on-air and working online, managing news on KMUW.org, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She joined KMUW in 2015 after working for a newspaper in western North Dakota. Before that she was a diversity intern at NPR in Washington, D.C.