NM: Session Ends With No Solution to Save Southwest Chief Route

Feb. 21--New Mexico's legislative session concluded Thursday without a commitment to fund the state's share of a proposed partnership to keep Amtrak's Southwest Chief running through the northern portion of the state beyond 2015.

Five bills that sought solutions for keeping the passenger line on its historic route failed to pass. However, in the state budget, the New Mexico Legislature authorized a study and collaboration between the state's Transportation Department and its counterparts in Kansas and Colorado, which also stand to lose stops on the Southwest Chief line if it is rerouted.

Supporters of sustaining the route in New Mexico and elsewhere put on an optimistic face Thursday, but they were disappointed by the Legislature's inaction and worry that a one-year delay could threaten the future of the Southwest Chief. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway owns the track along the route and has announced it will stop maintaining it in January 2016.

"I am disappointed, because I feel like there's so much at stake, not only for my district but for all of New Mexico," said Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, who represents several Northern New Mexico counties. "Fortunately, Amtrak's lease with BNSF doesn't expire for more than a year, so we will have one more bite at the apple. Unfortunately, the agreement we had worked on with the other states required all parties to come to the table, and the failure of these bills to pass kind of communicated to the other states that New Mexico wasn't willing to make that investment."

The three states and two railroads with stakes in the Southwest Chief route have been in discussions about a cost-sharing arrangement in which each entity would contribute an estimated $4 million annually for 10 years. If a deal cannot be reached, the Southwest Chief would be rerouted to eliminate New Mexico stops in Lamy, Las Vegas and Raton as well as Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad, Colo., and several western Kansas towns, including Garden City.

"Time has always been of the essence, and I don't think this is ideal," Colorado state Rep. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, said when he learned New Mexico had not passed funding provisions for the train. "Does it give any of us the wiggle room we'd like? No. But it doesn't mean the end of this."

Garcia is carrying legislation in Colorado related to the Southwest Chief that last week unanimously cleared its first committee vote. It aims to extend the route to include a stop in Pueblo that would boost ridership, but at a cost. A study conducted by Colorado State University-Pueblo estimated that adding a stop in Pueblo would add $31 million to the overall cost of the project, but would yield economic benefits to that state of about $2 for every $1 of investment.

New Mexico Transportation Secretary Tom Church has said he favors waiting a year before making a commitment to fund the project so a study can be conducted to assess the train's economic impact on this state, relative to the investment. The study will be conducted before the start of the next legislative session, in January 2015.

Identifying a funding strategy could be part of the study. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has been reluctant to commit state money to the project. She has said Amtrak historically has been funded by the federal government, and that should guide decisions in New Mexico about the passenger train's future.

Roch said everything from localized taxes in communities that benefit from the line to expanded private-sector use of the rails is being eyed as a possible solution. Identifying an industry to use lease the line for cargo transport in order to make maintaining the track more appealing to BNSF would be optimal, he said.

"I think that's where our best hope lies," Roch said. "I've engaged the governor directly on that. She's committed to support those efforts. That would fix the issue without an investment of tax dollars."

Garden City, Kan., Mayor Dan Frankhauser said he is worried about the partner states' ability to find money for the track -- and the fast-approaching deadline.

"Waiting another year, that's going to be cutting it right down to the wire," he said. "We're all going to have to make some decisions. It's going to be here before we know it."

Supporters of the passenger line cannot dwell on what didn't get done, but should turn their attention to what needs to happen next to sustain it, Roch said.

"All hope is not lost," he said. "I'm optimistic that the state of New Mexico will step up for those communities that will be devastated if the Southwest Chief is rerouted."

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

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