NM: Colorado Proposal to Extend Route Could Add $31M to Price of Saving Southwest Chief

Feb. 07--Legislation in Colorado seeking to add a stop along an endangered Amtrak route that passes through Northern New Mexico would add another $31 million to the estimated $200 million price tag, according to an economic study released Thursday.

New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas are mulling a five-way cost-sharing agreement with Amtrak and track owner Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway to preserve the current route of the Southwest Chief passenger train beyond 2015.

Colorado State University-Pueblo released the economic-impact study focusing on the idea of extending the Southwest Chief route to include a Pueblo, Colo., stop before the route bends south to New Mexico, a proposal currently pending in the Colorado Legislature.

The report, commissioned by the Pueblo Area Council of Governments, projects Colorado would reap $57 million in new economic activity over the course of one decade if the Pueblo stop was added.

New Mexico Department of Transportation spokeswoman Melissa Dosher said the findings of the Colorado report are too geographically specific to be related to New Mexico. Gov. Susana Martinez's Cabinet secretary-designate for transportation, Tom Church, applauded Colorado for its progress negotiating with Amtrak.

"I believe New Mexico should do the same for the purpose of maximizing economic benefit," he said.

The Colorado study made no presumptions about how to pay for the additional expense of adding Pueblo to the route.

"There's still a lot of discussion about that," said Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace.

It's a discussion that reaches into New Mexico, where Martinez's administration has been leery of legislation seeking to have the state contribute $4 million annually for 10 years, let alone the estimated 15 percent increase in the overall cost of the project that the Colorado study projects. This week, Church said the governor's administration favors waiting a year to further study the costs and benefits of keeping the Southwest Chief's historic route in New Mexico before committing funds to the project.

"Part of the concern with the five-way cost split is the needs are significantly different in each state, as are the costs," Church said. "An appropriate study will at least identify the actual costs."

An economic study by New Mexico State University focusing on the Southwest Chief is being considered by the New Mexico Legislature and has the Martinez administration's support. It could consider factors such as a possible constitutional barrier to supporting private enterprises with public funds and nuances in track repair unique to New Mexico's landscape that could change cost estimates for the work.

Amtrak's contract with BNSF on the Southwest Chief route expires in January 2016, when BNSF has said it will discontinue track maintenance on the line. The Northern New Mexico communities of Lamy, Las Vegas and Raton could be dropped from the Southwest Chief route unless the states and the railroads reach an agreement on track improvements and maintenance.

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or pmalone@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.

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