Jan. 10--A Taos lawmaker plans to introduce legislation that would fund rail improvements intended to keep Amtrak's Southwest Chief running on its historic route through Northern New Mexico.
The passenger train, which runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, might be rerouted through Southern New Mexico if Amtrak doesn't reach an agreement by January 2016 for upgrading and maintaining portions of the tracks in New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.
Rep. Roberto Gonzales, D-Taos, who chairs the state House Transportation Infrastructure Revenue Subcommittee, said he will prefile a bill that would allocate $4 million from the state's general fund for track upgrades in New Mexico. A second bill to be introduced during the 30-day session, which starts Jan. 21, would ask for $4 million from the capital outlay fund, which usually funds special state projects, Gonzales said.
Ford Robbins, who leads the Southwest Chief Coalition, an advocacy group that also has chapters in Colorado and Kansas, said coalition members met with staff from Gov. Susana Martinez's office recently to seek her support for funding the track improvements and maintenance.
Martinez hasn't been enthusiastic about a proposal presented to legislators last year that calls for New Mexico to contribute $4 million a year for 10 years to help fund work on tracks long used by the Southwest Chief.
At a Monday news conference, Martinez said there is no money for the railroad in her proposed budget.
In a statement issued to The New Mexican in November, the governor had said, "We're happy to discuss various proposals around this important issue, but Amtrak was created and funded by Congress since its inception, and thus, any agreement should not stick the taxpayers of New Mexico with a large tab. According to the New Mexico [Department of Transportation], the state has never provided state funds for Amtrak service. We're willing to work together on this issue, but any agreement needs to take that reality into account."
Martinez's spokesman reiterated that stance Wednesday.
The line that needs upgrading, which runs for 600 miles through the three states, is owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The railway company said that in order to renew its lease, Amtrak would need to upgrade its route. But officials with Amtrak have said they don't have the funds to do so.
In November, at a legislative subcommittee hearing in Santa Fe with train officials and advocates, witnesses explained that if a lease isn't renewed, it could have a negative economic impact on Northern New Mexico residents and businesses that depend on the passengers.
Ray Lang, Amtrak's state government relations chief, said a five-way split for maintenance costs could be an option that would keep the train on its current route, which has included a stop in Lamy since 1879. Lang suggested that each state -- Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico -- would provide $4 million annually for a decade, while Amtrak and BNSF would spend a similar amount, for a total of $40 million.
Even though Gonzales' bills would appropriate funds for only a year, he said that if either one is passed, it would be likely that annual funding would get support from lawmakers in the future.
"We'll definitely give it a strong boost," he said. "Because we definitely understand the need for it, and we also understand the economic base it builds and it has."
A report presented to the subcommittee in November says ridership on the Southwest Chief between 2010 and 2012 went up 6.7 percent, with a total of 127,269 passengers in 2012. The report also says the train's current route supports a total of 368 jobs, with $29.3 million in total economic output.
Robbins, of the Southwest Chief Coalition, said he considers the train an important transportation link for New Mexicans in various rural communities.
"There is nothing else for people living in Mora, or people even living in Las Vegas, to be able to get to where they need to go, other than jumping in their cars," he said. "That is not serving rural America well."