As early spring softens into the tourist season, one of New Mexico’s prized connections to the Midwest and Pacific Coast appears safe at last.
Amtrak will stick with its existing route of the Southwest Chief passenger train that makes stops in the New Mexico towns of Raton, Las Vegas, Lamy and Albuquerque, a company spokesman said in an interview. This ends more than two years of fear and uncertainty in Northern New Mexico’s smaller communities about whether Amtrak would alter the route and leave them without a stream of visitors with money to spend.
Colorado and Kansas moved aggressively last year to secure a federal grant and to allocate money for repairs on their sections of the Southwest Chief tracks. This meant those two states would be able to continue accommodating higher-speed passenger trains on the Southwest Chief’s daily run between Chicago and Los Angeles.
New Mexico’s hold on its section of the route was much more tenuous. Gov. Susana Martinez in 2014 authorized $150,000 for a study of the Southwest Chief’s costs and benefits. Martinez was less willing than governors in Colorado and Kansas to commit to the project because she said Amtrak historically was the beneficiary of federal subsidies.
But now, even without New Mexico obtaining a grant or allocating funding directly for the Southwest Chief line, Amtrak is convinced that all three states have a sound plan in place for upkeep of the tracks.
Just as important, a Jan. 1, 2016, deadline for funding the project has been lifted, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said in a telephone interview.
“We are making progress. There is no imminent cutoff date. … We do not want to move this train to another route,” he said.
BNSF Railway owns the tracks that the Southwest Chief traverses in western Kansas, Colorado and Northern New Mexico. It had told Amtrak and the three states that it wouldn’t maintain the tracks after the end of this year.
But Magliari and state Rep. Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos, said the new plan contains no timetable because all the states now have a strategy to cover costs on their part of the route. BNSF Railway’s regional spokesman declined comment Saturday until speaking with executives in his company.
Tom Church, Cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Department of Transportation, said his agency is devising ways to pay for repairs in New Mexico.
“We are coordinating an effort with the Southwest Chief Coalition for the Northern New Mexico cities and counties to develop a TIGER grant through the federal Transportation Department,” Church’s staff said in an email. The TIGER grant acronym stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery.
Garden City, Kan., was the lead applicant for a group of governments that received a TIGER grant last year to help pay for repairs on sections of track for the Southwest Chief. Twelve communities in Colorado, four in Kansas, plus Amtrak, BNSF Railway and the Kansas Department of Transportation contributed a total of more than $9 million to secure the $12.5 million federal grant, said Sal Pace, chairman of the Southwest Chief Commission in Colorado.
New Mexico legislators ended their 60-day session this month without allocating any money for repairs of the tracks. But Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the $6.23 billion state budget contains money for local economic development projects.
Smith, D-Deming, said $37.5 million designated for economic development programs could give Martinez’s administration the money needed to begin Southwest Chief maintenance or to help obtain a TIGER grant in collaboration with the other two states.
One estimate early on was that Amtrak, BNSF Railway and the states would have to spend $40 million each across 10 years to improve the tracks.
Pace said his state government’s share had already been cut to $8.9 million. The federal grant and BNSF Railway’s agreement to handle maintenance for a large section of track in Colorado reduced the expense, he said.
Church’s staff said BNSF Railway next month will have an updated cost estimate for maintaining the line in New Mexico.
The next application for a TIGER grant for the Southwest Chief project will include Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico, Pace said.
“Time is of the essence because we’re told the grant might not be around next year,” Pace said.
Amtrak’s commitment to keeping intact the existing Southwest Chief route was welcome news in Northern New Mexico.
“That’s terrific. It’s been a wonderful thing for Santa Fe because a lot of people don’t travel by plane,” said Sam Latkin, a board member of the Lamy Railroad & History Museum.
Raton Mayor Sandra Mantz said Amtrak is important to her town and especially to the nearby Philmont Scout Ranch. Established in 1938, Philmont bills itself as the Boy Scouts of America’s largest national high country base.
“It attracts Scouts from all over the country,” Mantz said.
Amtrak says about 22,000 Boy Scouts travel each summer to the Philmont Scout Ranch. About 20 percent of them arrive in Raton by train. This accounts for half the business at the Raton station.
In all, about 126,000 boardings and departures by Southwest Chief riders are made each year in New Mexico, Amtrak says. The company says it employs 57 residents of New Mexico, and that their total wages were about $5.2 million last year.