Amtrak’s Southwest Chief runs daily from Chicago to Los Angeles, stretching across portions of Western Kansas, Southern Colorado, and Northern New Mexico. It runs on tracks owned by BNSF, which are in need of upgrades and repairs. A partnership is on the table between those five entities, with an estimated cost of $40 million each spread over the course of 10 years. If an agreement can’t be made, Amtrak says it will reroute the service, bypassing western Kansas, Colorado, and Northern New Mexico entirely. A bill that would form a commission to study the issue in Colorado is making its way through the statehouse. For a look at the issue in New Mexico, KRCC's Andrea Chalfin spoke with Patrick Malone, who’s been covering the Southwest Chief for the Santa Fe New Mexican.
KRCC: So let’s start from the latest with the statehouse. The New Mexican legislative session is pretty short, and there were five bills concerning the Southwest Chief that were up for consideration. Generally speaking, what were those bills, and what happened?
MALONE: They ranged from everything including studies up to possible funding mechanisms for New Mexico’s share of keeping the Chief on its current line, and the outcome was that none of the bills really progressed. However, in the state budget, there was a provision for a $50,000 study to explore participating in this funding partnership.
KRCC: What was the response in the statehouse to these bills? Was is lukewarm, or was there some real action behind them?
MALONE: When you visited with lawmakers there seemed to be a lot of momentum behind it, but at the executive level, Governor Susanna Martinez’s office, her administration, [they] were very reluctant to contribute state funds to a project that historically has been federally funded. I think that that kind of cast a shadow over its legislative momentum, and in the end, the Governor’s position won out, which was, “Let’s study this for one more year, and see what it’s economic impacts would be.”
KRCC: How strong were her concerns, and was there really a veto threat should it have passed?
MALONE: I think there was a very real veto threat. I’d be hesitant though to say she’s 100% opposed to the possibility. She wants to explore certain things such as commercial leasing of some of the track that would offset state’s expenses related to it.
KRCC: So basically, she’s saying, “Let’s do a little bit more research.”
MALONE: She is, and that’s causing some concern among proponents of keeping the line where it is because they say, “Time is really of the essence here.” We’re looking at a deadline of January 2016 for the train to actually be rerouted. That would take several months of Amtrak planning and steps to be taken to actually reroute the train out of southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. So, although the deadline is January of 2016, realistically, any proposal to keep it going on its current course would have to take effect probably the middle of next year.
KRCC: What’s the sense in New Mexico of what’s going to happen? What’s the economic study that they’ve decided to go ahead with, what’s the barometer there?
MALONE: Well, it’s really going to be gauging what is uniquely New Mexico about the improvements that need to be made. The terrain here is very different than it is in say, Southeastern Colorado, very flat, not a lot of hills to deal with there, whereas here, you’re talking about a pretty mountainous part of the state that it has to go through. And one of the issues that has concerned Amtrak at this point is, Burlington Northern’s reluctance to continue funding maintenance means that the trains can only travel up to a certain speed. Ideally, for Amtrak, they’d like that to be 80 mph. There’s a strong engineering component to this assessment, and accompanying that would be the cost it would take for New Mexico to really improve its part of the track. So, while the proposed share is roughly $40 million from each of the five entities involved, New Mexico wants to assess how much of this really would be our fix, and it frankly could be very expensive.
KRCC: You mentioned that Governor Martinez is really saying that the federal government should be paying for this. What is the federal picture in all of this?
MALONE: The federal picture has changed somewhat in the last few weeks alone. President Obama launched a rail initiative that would generate hundreds of millions of dollars for rail improvements nationally, but the caveat to all that is that it would require Congress signing off on much higher corporate taxes, it’s very reliant on corporate taxes. And, the speed that move at in Washington does not bode well for there being a federal solution between now and the deadline to really revamp these tracks.
KRCC: Colorado is a little bit unique in that it’s the only state that stands to lose everything should the train be rerouted. Are there folks in the southern part of New Mexico that are lobbying for the rerouting just as there might be folks in the north lobbying against it?
MALONE: I would say there’s silent lobbying for that. The truth is, southern New Mexico already sees this train and others, so it would not add much for them. Really, what’s at stake is what northern New Mexico stands to lose, and small towns like Raton, like Lamy, which is right outside Santa Fe, they’re very concerned about the economic development impacts of this.