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Bid To Save The Southwest Chief Winds Through The Statehouse

Sheila Thomson
Flickr - Creative Commons
Amtrak's Southwest Chief makes a stop March 5, 2006. The rails that run through New Mexico into Colorado and Kansas need repair, without it the line could be rerouted through Texas and Oklahoma.

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line runs through the towns of Lamar, La Junta, and Trinidad - part of a longer passenger route stretching from Chicago to L.A. The rails are in need of major repairs and the upgrades are expected to be in the millions.

Part of a multistate effort, a measure is moving through the statehouse to try and find ways to finance the project and save the rail line.

“The train will continue to slow down — the train is already operating more slowly than it did five years ago through there,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

The older tracks are owned by the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railway. The plan currently in the works for Amtrak, BNSF and the states of Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas is to split the $200 million cost of upgrading and maintaining the tracks. Colorado’s portion would be $40 million.

Democratic Senator Leroy Garcia of Pueblo is sponsoring House Bill 1161 [.pdf], to create a commission to study the issue. Garcia also wants the commission to look at adding a stop for the Chief in Pueblo and possibly Walsenberg.

“We look at this as an avenue to continue to advocate for the Southwest Chief,” said Garcia. “There’s more of a regional and state perspective to how this will be solved and I think that’s a benefit because there’s not one solution that’s going to solve this for everyone.”

Credit Ray Lang, Chief, State Government Relations / Amtrak
Southwest Chief Routing, Nov. 11, 2013.

With bipartisan support, the bill easily cleared the house with little debate. Republican state Senator Larry Crowder, a co-sponsor of the measure, says keeping the line in Colorado is critical.

“The grist of the thing now Amtrak is attempting to re-route that,” said Crowder. “It would be taken completely out of southeastern Colorado. I’m of the opinion if we lose this Amtrak line we’ll never get it back.”

That’s something Amtrak doesn’t want to do, but officials say it may have no other choice but to redirect the route to existing tracks in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. There’s strong support in Colorado for preserving the line, except finding money for it is another issue.

Some lawmakers say Amtrak should foot the entire bill.

“I think it would decades to make that thing viable and I think there’s probably better ways the state of Colorado can spend that money,” said Representative Don Coram (R-Montrose).

Republican representative Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling agrees.

Credit David Wilson / Flickr - Creative Commons
Flickr - Creative Commons
Amtrak Southwest Chief stops in LaJunta, Colorado, March 28, 1998.

“It’s always a concern to me when we try to help and subsidize an already losing proposition not only from the national level but the state level, that’s a concern that we may continue to put money into a sinking hole,” said Sonnenberg.

A study from Colorado State University Pueblo shows that the Southwest Chief line serves about 13,000 passengers in Colorado each year, half of whom are from out of state. There’s also freight on the line. Governor John Hickenlooper says freight could help pay for some of the costs.

Hickenlooper says the railway is hugely important to Southern Colorado and he’s open to finding a funding solution.

“I suspect it will be a big number, we realize the value this creates but we have to be responsible, no one gave us a blank check over here,” said Hickenlooper.

If Colorado, New Mexico or Kansas fail to come up with their share of the money the whole proposal falls apart. Colorado’s bill to create a commission now heads to the state Senate. New Mexico officials have set aside money to study the legal and economic benefits of maintaining the line, but Governor Susana Martinez has been skeptical. Kansas is looking at the issue.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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