Reader View: Study prudent before committing to Amtrak

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train pulls into Lamy on its way from Chicago to Los Angeles. Clyde Mueller/New Mexican file photo

New Mexico would suffer economic losses of about $3 million annually if Amtrak halted passenger service along its current route and shifted the Southwest Chief to another rail line, according to a new report issued Thursday.

State Department of Transportation officials outlined the state-commission study to a legislative panel considering whether New Mexico should pay part of the costs of keeping the passenger train on its route across the northeastern part of the state.

The Southwest Chief travels between Chicago and Los Angeles, but part of the current route is in jeopardy because Amtrak says it can’t afford the costs of needed maintenance and upgrades of track. Amtrak has suggested that New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas share maintenance costs with it and BNSF Railway, formerly called Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which owns the track.

Transportation Secretary Tom Church told lawmakers that Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration hasn’t agreed on a proposal for helping to finance the Amtrak route. Church said he preferred that New Mexico seek a federal grant, which occurred recently in Kansas.

The study estimated it would cost about $9 million annually to maintain the New Mexico portions of the line. Amtrak has projected the costs at about $7 million a year in New Mexico, with an additional $4 million for one-time upgrades to the line.

Ray Lang, Amtrak’s state government relations chief, told lawmakers that New Mexico is at risk of losing rail service if no agreement can be reached on paying for the rail improvements needed for the Southwest Chief. “If this falls apart, we’d do some serious soul-searching about what we’re going to do,” Lang said after the legislative hearing.

Lang said Amtrak didn’t have money in its budget for necessary upgrades to switch the Southwest Chief to another BNSF line that goes through Kansas and Oklahoma to Amarillo, Texas, and then through Central New Mexico, passing through the communities of Clovis and Belen.

To keep the Southwest Chief on its current route, Amtrak has proposed that it, BNSF and the three states each provide about $4 million annually for a decade for needed track maintenance and improvements.

Lang said Amtrak is reassessing New Mexico’s share of costs in light of a federal grant obtained for improvements to parts of the BNSF line in Kansas and eastern Colorado. The state of Kansas, Amtrak and BNSF as well as local communities pledged matching funds to get the grant.

The study projected that fewer out-of-state visitors would come to New Mexico if the Southwest Chief is shifted to the other route across the state. That would cause annual economic losses of about $3.3 million, which would grow to $3.7 million by 2023, according to the study. The economic impact includes lower spending by visitors and lost wages and taxes.

About 56 jobs would be lost, including railroad workers and employees at businesses relying on spending by train passengers.