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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.