Martinez could derail tri-state plan to save Southwest Chief route

The schedule for Amtrak trains that make daily stops in Lamy. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican.

The greatest threat to derail Amtrak’s Southwest Chief from running through Northern New Mexico isn’t at ground level on its aging tracks, but perched four stories high in the New Mexico state Capitol.

A proposed partnership to bring Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico together with Amtrak and track owner Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway to keep the train route active beyond 2015 could hinge on New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez’s support. The partnership calls for each to shoulder a share of the track maintenance costs, and proponents of the plan in all three states view Martinez as its foremost obstacle.

So far, Martinez has not been keen on the idea. She has persistently said the necessary track repairs are the responsibility of the federal government, not the taxpayers of New Mexico.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, supports keeping the passenger line running through the southern portion of that state and expanding its route, according to the governor’s spokesman Eric Brown. Legislation with bipartisan support has been introduced in Colorado. It would add a stop in Pueblo to the Southwest Chief line.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, was a staunch critic of Amtrak when he served in the U.S. Senate, and his stance on the Southwest Chief has been ambiguous. But he made it clear that without funding from the other states and entities involved in the discussion, Kansas could not make it work.

“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,” said Eileen Hawley, Brownback’s spokeswoman.

The Southwest Chief runs from Chicago to Los Angeles. It passes through the western Kansas towns of Dodge City and Garden City en route to southeastern Colorado, where it goes through Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad. In New Mexico, it travels through Raton, Las Vegas, Lamy, Albuquerque and Gallup.

“That Amtrak route has always been a concept I support,” said New Mexico Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe. “It means economic development for rural areas of the state and supports tourism.”

If a funding agreement isn’t reached by the end of 2015, Lamy — the stop nearest to Santa Fe — would be cut from the route, along with Las Vegas, Raton and the towns in Colorado and southwest Kansas. Instead, the route would go from Wichita, Kan., into Oklahoma and Texas and on to Albuquerque from Amarillo, Texas, beginning in January 2016.

The announcement by BNSF Railway that after that date, it no longer will maintain its tracks on the route at speeds high enough for passenger trains triggered the states to scramble for a funding solution.

The arrangement being discussed between the prospective partner states and railroads would call for each to provide $4 million a year for 10 years to maintain the existing route of the Southwest Chief through 2055. Legislatures are in session and crafting fiscal year 2015 budgets in all three states.

Legislation seeking to authorize participation in the partnership has been introduced in Colorado and New Mexico and is in the drafting phase in Kansas, but neither the legislatures’ nor the governors’ budgets in any of the states as of Friday recommend funding it.

In New Mexico, Rep. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, D-Taos, has introduced legislation calling for the state to contribute its share to keep the Southwest Chief on its current route. House Bill 116 is tentatively scheduled for a hearing Tuesday in the House Transportation and Public Works Committee that Gonzales chairs.

“As far as the legislative part, the committee, there’s not a problem,” Gonzales said. “To my knowledge, nobody has come out and said, ‘I can’t support that.’ Our hurdle is the Governor’s Office.”

He said supporters of his bill have met with the governor’s staff about funding for the Southwest Chief and came away disappointed.

“The administration’s reaction is basically not a very strong commitment,” Gonzales said.

Martinez’s spokesman did not respond to questions Friday about the governor’s stance on funding to maintain the Southwest Chief’s existing route. But twice since the discussion heated up in November, the Martinez administration has issued the same statement.

“We’re happy to discuss various proposals around this important issue, but 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,” Martinez’s spokesman, Enrique Knell, said in a written statement Jan. 8, echoing previous remarks. “According to the New Mexico [Department of Transportation], the state has never provided State funds for Amtrak service. We’re willing to work together on this issue, but any agreement needs to take that reality into account.”



Because it carries an appropriation, Gonzales said, his bill can advance without a message from the governor authorizing the Legislature to discuss it. But he’s still concerned that Martinez would veto it if it passes.

Gonzales frets that his home state — due to Martinez’s position on the issue, in particular — could be the end of the line for the Southwest Chief.

In Colorado, Rep. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, has introduced a bill to preserve the Southwest Chief’s presence in that state. He has assembled a coalition of 26 co-sponsors, a mix of Democrats and Republicans.

Garcia’s bill would kick in Colorado’s share of the funds for track maintenance and add a stop in Pueblo, where he says ridership on the line could get a boost from that county’s 160,000 residents.

“It’s really the game-changer for the Southwest Chief as we know it,” Garcia said. He said the track already exists to extend the route through Pueblo, and county government has expressed it is willing to help defray costs associated with the extension.

Amtrak would be willing to study how much the fuel and personnel expenses associated with extending the line approximately 80 miles north to Pueblo would change the estimated costs, but they undoubtedly would rise, Amtrak spokesman Mark Magliari said.

“There would be some additional cost, just based on going the additional miles,” Magliari said.

Any deviation from the principle task of preserving the current Southwest Chief route furrows brows among some proponents of the partnership.

“The most important thing we need to do is save the Chief first, then we can add the caveats,” said Kansas Rep. John Doll, R-Garden City. “The Colorado legislation makes me nervous. It could throw everything out of whack.”

The Southwest Chief faces a different set of problems in Kansas, where Doll expects a Senate bill seeking to participate in the funding partnership to be introduced soon.

“I am not aware of additional state funds that can be used for the purposes outlined by Amtrak to continue service of the Southwest Chief on its current alignment,” said Dennis Slimmer, chief of planning for the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Garden City Mayor Dan Frankhauser also sees money as a monkey wrench to Kansas’ participation, but he’s hustling to find some. His city’s application for federal funds to aid the Southwest Chief’s cause was denied, and along with other towns on the route, Garden City has hired past Republican presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bob Dole’s lobbying firm.

“It’s probably going to have to come from the federal government in the form of a grant,” Frankhauser said. “I can’t see the state coming up with that sort of money.”

Doll, the past mayor of Garden City, disagrees.

“When you have a $6 billion, $7 billion budget and you can’t come up with $4 million for something as important as this, something’s wrong,” Doll said. “I think we can find that somewhere. I would suspect each state could. That’s chicken feed compared to what their budget is. We wouldn’t leave children starving or without education.”

Doll said he’s nervous about the Southwest Chief’s future for a host of reasons, and Martinez’s posture tops the list.

“That could be the roadblock,” he said.

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or pmalone@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.

(29) comments

Fred Stokes

It would be great to have a real newspaper with some professional journalists. Then we might get some useful data with this article -- e.g., the number of people who get on or off at Lamy in a year; an estimate of the impact on the economy; andor the trends in usage.

Jim Loomis

It troubles me that so many comments focus on the subsidy Amtrak receives. In their regrettable ignorance, they don't understand that ALL public transportation is subsidized. The federal government has the EAS (Essential Air Service) program that makes direct payments to the airlines for every passenger on every flight into rural airports all over the west and Mid-west. The gasoline tax only covers about half the money the feds spend on building and maintaining highways; the other half is pure subsidy. City bike paths and even sidewalks are subsidized with tax dollars. Here's a fact: for literally millions of Americans, Amtrak is the only public transportation available to them. Yes, Amtrak gets a pitifully small subsidy. And for all those tax-paying Americans who depend on those trains, including the historic Southwest Chief, it's money very well spent.

henry Griswold

doesn't amtrak pay bnsf for use of the track, which they should then maintain.........

christopher quintana

Why are Republicans against all public transportation? I take this train about 4 times a year and many passengers board points between Gallup and Flagstaff, headed to LA

Dale Harwood

We aren't against all forms of public transportation. I think I can speak for a growing number of us understand that in many cases, rail is a better investment as is the case here. I do however, agree with Martinez in that it should be the federal government paying for this. It's an INTERSTATE train and should be funded by an 80-20 formula - just like Interstate highways.

Steve Salazar

Why don't the people who want the train open THEIR wallets and pay for this, why depend on government?

Drake Swenson

I open my wallet each time I support the train...when I buy a ticket. Given the choice, I'd rather see 4 million spent on the train than the spaceport, it doesn't change my taxes.

Garl Latham


Steve,

The U.S. railroad industry once operated its own passenger services, for profit, while paying taxes and dividends.

It was our government's insistence upon using tax money to create an all-weather, high speed roadway network which almost destroyed our privately operated railway system! After all, who can effectively compete against the folks that print the money?

It's interesting that every penny spent on Amtrak since its birth doesn't even equal the taxpayer's current (estimated) share of the so-called NextGen Air Traffic Control system. Shoot, we spend more money on highways ANNUALLY than we've EVER invested in intercity passenger train service initiatives!

Get Washington (and New Mexico) out of the transportation business entirely and you'll never have to worry about those bad ol' trains taking money out of your wallet again!

In fact, I'd wager that, given economic realities, passenger trains would end up being the last man standing!

Garl B. Latham

Gregory Strick

Not only does the state depend on this train, and specifically this route, the tourist market in Santa Fe depends on it. I have travelled the train a number of times and visit with those coming in to Lamy to visit Santa Fe. They are an important source of revenue for the city and state, and an important source of good will when they go back to their home states. Gov. (leader????) Martinez needs to get on the train and talk to people who use it, and visit the businesses in the cities where it stops and talk to people who meet those who use it. Would she do anything if all of a sudden the Federal government stopped funding I-25 or I-40, of course she would. Well, this is no different.

Drake Swenson

This state depends on the train! I use it and want to keep riding the Southwest Chief. Its hours to a big airport for me and frankly, flying is too much of a hassle. I can't imagine that I'll ever use the spaceport and we have thrown a lot of money at that...can't we keep our train, a reliable source of transportation for me out of the state and family and friends coming into the state, versus allowing one person to stop a tradition AND a necessity for New Mexico residents! I suggest that if Martinez or other legislatures have not ridden the train, especially business class, that they do so BEFORE voting against the funding.

Harvey Morgan II

So has Gov. Martinez stated she would lobby Congress to put the funding in place? Or is she just hoping the Southwest Chief drowns in the bathtub?

vincent saiz

Tejana is BAD FOR NEW MEXICO and its STUDENTS

vincent saiz

Tejana needs to go back to Texas already and she needs to remember to take the dummy from Florida with her

Stan Bies

Let us quit hearing about how things were done "since inception" and just work on what makes sense. Also constantly saying what cannot be done is not leadership. Good thing this generation is not the one being asked to actually accomplish things for the State or the Country.

Jeff Carr

Northern New Mexico needs this. This issue is important and should not be decided on being ideologically consistent.

Cathy McManus

This statement bothers me: “We’re happy to discuss various proposals around this important issue, but 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,” Martinez’s spokesman, Enrique Knell. If Gov. Martinez and and her staff are true Republican conservatives/Tea Party Conservatives then taking control of Amtrak would be a way to make govt. smaller and back in control of the states. They should be elated and support this issue.

Pam Walker

Our Gov could not care less whether there is a cheaper way of travel because she can hop on a plane any time she wants and does. There are a lot of folks that cannot afford to fly, have trouble navigating the airports and in general just love the train. I travel twice a year on the train and in former years even went a lot more. It is almost always fairly full. I have been coast to coast and enjoy it even more now that I am getting older. So sad to even think about it going away.

Edward Brown

Since the NM Legislature controls the purse strings and it is controlled by the democrats, it is they who are responsible for not funding the Southwest Chief - not the Governor. Put the blame where it belongs.

Pam Walker

Read the article. It specifically states that SHE is the problem.

Steve Salazar

You believe a liberal rag with a liberal agenda, I feel for you.

Pam Walker

But of course we can fund a Spaceport that the average New Mexican could never even think about riding.

Cathy McManus

Edward, Gov. Martinez can veto any legislation therefore she would be the problem.

Wehican Upp

The SW Chief, because it is transcontinental, has to have a dorm car for crew, a dining car, a lounge car, a baggage car, and enough cars to carry people from Chicago to LA, usually three to five. When Amtrak was allowed to carry some freight that train was about 26 cars long. And at least two engines. That is all excess weight and expense to haul through the mountains. Mountains get in the way of efficiency and linking of communities. Plus crew changes along the way. On Amtrak the engineers and conductors are the only ones that get on and off for eight hour shifts. The rest run from Chicago to LA. La Junta, CO, is a crew change, I believe ABQ is the next.

Railrunner would be a lot more efficient along those routes. An engine and passenger cars only. The state needs to extend it. In this case, ABQ to Santa Fe, then link to Raton. Fire up the old route up to the north from Santa Fe and extend to the four corners. Santa Fe becomes a hub serving the northern and northeastern part of the state. Just one train a day would be a good start. The transportation links will start future growth.

Dale Harwood

Yet Amtrak covers 88% of it's costs and Railrunner less than 25% of its costs. Those dining, lounge, baggage, and sleeping cars allow Amtrak to charge higher fares. You need to look at both sides of the equation.

Wehican Upp

I am a big fan of the Southwest Chief, I have ridden it many times. The link under discussion is the only scenic part of it. I live in CO on that route and watch the train pass everyday.

However..

In NM it is also the slowest leg, and except for the annual Boy Scout gathering there really isn't that much ridership getting off and on from Lamy to Raton.

Those millions of dollars to preserve that route just support a few jobs along that route, and add nothing to economic potential of the area.

ABQ, the center of the state, is the gateway to NM. You get there, then you go someplace else in it. It is a simple geographic reality. Invest any rail money in branching out from ABQ and linking the state together. That is the way it has been and is. You build a network from that hub.

Lamy to Raton is a nice excursion trip, not an economical transportation route.

That existing rail link needs to be put to use as a right of way connecting NM and CO for a lighter weight rail link and energy transfer, such as electrical and gas lines. Extend the CO Front Range down into eastern New Mexico.

Spend any money upgrading the network, not maintaining anachronistic routes.

Andrew Lucero

I'm quite torn on this issue. I wish the article would have told us what the actual ridership is on the Southwest Chief, along with how many jobs it provides and how much it contributes to the state's economy.

I fully realize that rail plays an integral part in both our local and nation' s transportation infrastructure...But I am not sure if spending millions of dollars annually just to maintain an antiquated rail system is the best use of state funds...It would be different if we were investing in the future of rail, which is high speed bullet trains like they have throughout Asia and Europe....

This is an incomplete article. We need all the facts so that we can make an informed decision. And as much as I like trains and would hate to see the Southwest Chief go, I have to ask.... what is our return on the investment? Or is this going to be just another political black hole that we throw countless millions into for perpetuity?

Henry Bowman

Amtrak loses $186 per thousand passenger miles (2004 figures). According publicpurpose.com, the Southwest Chief lost $154 per thousand passenger miles in 1997. Seems to me that, with the exception of high population areas such as the East coast, intercity rail is simply a 19th century technology that a relatively small number of train aficionados like to use. I don't see a good reason to subsidize such obsolete transportation modes.

Dale Harwood

Henry, what the "Public Purpose" won't tell you is that Amtrak covers 88% of its costs, while highways cover only 51% of their costs. The $4 million dollars per year for the state's Amtrak service would barely cover the cost of resurfacing .less than 9 miles of roadway on a typical 4-lane highway.
One last thing: The "Public Purpose" is a funded by oil, highway, and auto lobbyists. They'll never admit - under any circumstances- that rail is by far a better investment.
Let's not be fooled folks. Highways are massive money-losers. Always have - always will.

Dale Harwood

Andrew, But it's not a black hole. For the cost of resurfacing less than 9 miles of a typical 4-lane road every year, you get daily train service east and west that provides more return per taxpayer dollar than cars and roads. From an economic standpoint, passenger trains are a better investment of taxpayer dollars. We should be expanding long-distance train service, not cutting it back.

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