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Kansas Legislature holds third annual hearing on passenger rail
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Kansas Legislature holds third annual hearing on passenger rail

Kansas state Senator and MIPRC Commissioner Carolyn McGinn hosted the Kansas Legislature’s third annual hearing on passenger rail at the Kansas State Capitol on January 22. Representatives from Amtrak, BNSF, Kansas DOT (KDOT) and MIPRC were invited to address an overflow group of legislators and advocates on the current state of passenger rail development at the federal, state and local levels.

MIPRC Director Laura Kliewer spoke first, giving the group an overview of the commission’s purpose and history, as well as the current status of federal/state relations. Kliewer emphasized that the FAST Act – which was passed in 2015 and for the first time authorized substantive funding to states for passenger rail development – is up for renewal in 2020, and MIPRC is working to ensure that continued and new substantial funding and policy is contained in the surface transportation reauthorization legislation.

In addition to distributing copies of MIPRC’s surface transportation reauthorization principles, she unveiled a newly-developed resolution that MIPRC created supporting federal legislation that would give Amtrak the ability to enforce its legal right of preference on freight rail lines.

Kliewer also urged Kansas officials to consider applying for a federal Restoration & Enhancement grant to extend Amtrak’s current Heartland Flyer service from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, up through Wichita to Newton, Kansas -- a plan long advocated by MIPRC and Wichita and Newton-area officials. (The deadline for applying for current funding through the program is February 6).

She further recommended that communities along both the current Southwest Chief and proposed Heartland Flyer extension begin meeting together regularly, and distributed information on the Missouri Rail Advisory Committee (MORPAC) – which the Missouri DOT has hosted quarterly meetings for since 1995 – as an example of what such regular meetings could entail and achieve.

Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director of national state relations, said Amtrak is proposing that billions of dollars for funding capital infrastructure investment for new passenger rail routes be included in the federal surface transportation reauthorization legislation. Amtrak will also propose federal matching funds for state operating costs, he said, adding that Amtrak’s full reauthorization positions will be released within the next couple of months.

Pat Hubbell, lobbyist for BNSF, addressed the group on the anticipated release by the company of a cost analysis to add passenger trains on BNSF tracks in Oklahoma and Kansas, to accommodate extending the Heartland Flyer to Kansas. The study was originally expected to be completed by October 2019, but Hubbell said he now expects it to be submitted to the Kansas Department of Transportation by this February.

Lyndsey Douglas, Kansas’ assistant secretary of transportation, said KDOT would seek to release this update to a 2010 feasibility study of the route  (and further analysis in 2011) as soon as possible after receiving it, and could work to update other aspects of the study, as well. Douglas also told the group that she anticipates that funding for the Heartland Flyer extension could be considered through Kansas’ T-WORKS (Transportation Works for Kansas) program in the future.

MIPRC’s other Kansas commissioners who were present at the hearing were heartened by the content and crowd at the meeting.

“The overflow attendance for this hearing is clearly indicative of the breadth of constituencies invested in the presence and expansion of long-distance passenger rail in this state,” said Rep. Brad Ralph, the Kansas House MIPRC appointee. “The presence of the Southwest Chief is critical to the residents of southwest Kansas, and its critical function in providing alternative transportation options for Kansas families could only be enhanced by the presence of the Heartland Flyer.”

Pete Meitzner, a Sedgwick County commissioner and MIPRC private sector designee, said he was “encouraged” by the updates from KDOT and Amtrak. “Much appreciation to MIPRC for their regional support. The representatives from Oklahoma and even New Mexico provided additional credibility for this connection to the national Amtrak network. Thank you, Senator McGinn, for your leadership,” he said.

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