Southwest Chief

Passengers board the southbound Southwest Chief at the Lamy Amtrak station in March 2012. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

New Mexico’s legislative session concluded Thursday without a commitment to fund the state’s share of a proposed partnership to keep Amtrak’s Southwest Chief running through the northern portion of the state beyond 2015.

Five bills that sought solutions for keeping the passenger line on its historic route failed to pass. However, in the state budget, the New Mexico Legislature authorized a study and collaboration between the state’s Transportation Department and its counterparts in Kansas and Colorado, which also stand to lose stops on the Southwest Chief line if it is rerouted.

Supporters of sustaining the route in New Mexico and elsewhere put on an optimistic face Thursday, but they were disappointed by the Legislature’s inaction and worry that a one-year delay could threaten the future of the Southwest Chief. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway owns the track along the route and has announced it will stop maintaining it in January 2016.

“I am disappointed, because I feel like there’s so much at stake, not only for my district but for all of New Mexico,” said Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, who represents several Northern New Mexico counties. “Fortunately, Amtrak’s lease with BNSF doesn’t expire for more than a year, so we will have one more bite at the apple. Unfortunately, the agreement we had worked on with the other states required all parties to come to the table, and the failure of these bills to pass kind of communicated to the other states that New Mexico wasn’t willing to make that investment.”

The three states and two railroads with stakes in the Southwest Chief route have been in discussions about a cost-sharing arrangement in which each entity would contribute an estimated $4 million annually for 10 years. If a deal cannot be reached, the Southwest Chief would be rerouted to eliminate New Mexico stops in Lamy, Las Vegas and Raton as well as Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad, Colo., and several western Kansas towns, including Garden City.

“Time has always been of the essence, and I don’t think this is ideal,” Colorado state Rep. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, said when he learned New Mexico had not passed funding provisions for the train. “Does it give any of us the wiggle room we’d like? No. But it doesn’t mean the end of this.”

Garcia is carrying legislation in Colorado related to the Southwest Chief that last week unanimously cleared its first committee vote. It aims to extend the route to include a stop in Pueblo that would boost ridership, but at a cost. A study conducted by Colorado State University-Pueblo estimated that adding a stop in Pueblo would add $31 million to the overall cost of the project, but would yield economic benefits to that state of about $2 for every $1 of investment.

New Mexico Transportation Secretary Tom Church has said he favors waiting a year before making a commitment to fund the project so a study can be conducted to assess the train’s economic impact on this state, relative to the investment. The study will be conducted before the start of the next legislative session, in January 2015.



Identifying a funding strategy could be part of the study. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has been reluctant to commit state money to the project. She has said Amtrak historically has been funded by the federal government, and that should guide decisions in New Mexico about the passenger train’s future.

Roch said everything from localized taxes in communities that benefit from the line to expanded private-sector use of the rails is being eyed as a possible solution. Identifying an industry to use lease the line for cargo transport in order to make maintaining the track more appealing to BNSF would be optimal, he said.

“I think that’s where our best hope lies,” Roch said. “I’ve engaged the governor directly on that. She’s committed to support those efforts. That would fix the issue without an investment of tax dollars.”

Garden City, Kan., Mayor Dan Frankhauser said he is worried about the partner states’ ability to find money for the track — and the fast-approaching deadline.

“Waiting another year, that’s going to be cutting it right down to the wire,” he said. “We’re all going to have to make some decisions. It’s going to be here before we know it.”

Supporters of the passenger line cannot dwell on what didn’t get done, but should turn their attention to what needs to happen next to sustain it, Roch said.

“All hope is not lost,” he said. “I’m optimistic that the state of New Mexico will step up for those communities that will be devastated if the Southwest Chief is rerouted.”

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

(4) comments

Scott Smart

I hope that the economic impact study is not done by the same outfit that earlier studied the rail runner and spaceport....

Ernie Barney

I have to shake my head at the Gov's "Congress funds Amtrak" position. Congress does NOT provide enough funding to keep trains running. Amtrak and several states have worked to increase funding levels to keep trains not only running but expanding service in their corridors. And forget about federal funding to enable Amtrak to invest for real growth (new equipment, routes, etc.) Doesn't happen. Many states have stepped forward because they recognize rail's importance. Mr. Ribe's post is dead on. The GOP, back to the Nixon admin just after Amtrak was formed, has tried to kill Amtrak. Obama talked a good game on "high speed" rail for America but only threw a few peanuts at it. Amtrak's ridership, on the whole, continues to grow. A recent post here compared trains to stagecoaches and that they should just go away. The poster also commented about how many people take the train to Dallas from Santa Fe. My answer is "none". There used to be but there is no train service today. You are forced to fly or drive. Or how about linking with Denver and other Front Range communities with a rail corridor? How many folks would use such a service? Based on what other states and countries have done my guess would be quite a few. Let's be honest, there are NO passenger trains in the world that are "for profit:enterprises". All receive government subsidies as a public service and rail ridership has grown around the world.

Tom Ribe

Governor Martinez' response to this crisis is very revealing. To "study" whether Amtrak benefits New Mexico is selfish and dishonest. She knows it benefits the state, just not the sectors she cares about. Of course having transportation alternatives for rural New Mexicans and for the millions of people passing through New Mexico on Amtrak benefits us! Many people won't ride airplanes and trains are by far the most energy efficient form of transport available. If Martinez was up to date and thinking about the future rather than just oil and cattle, she would see the great benefit of investing more in trains, putting in fast commuter rail to join with Colorado so we could have an economic zone extending to Denver. But the GOP won't invest in infrastructure or mass transit. It will be good to have a new governor soon.

Scott Smart

I think the railrunner has disproved your statement about trains being economical...

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