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Kansas seeking $20M in federal funding for rail

Kansas seeking $20M in federal funding for rail

This article first appeared in The Journal Record.

May 21, 2009

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) – State transportation officials plan to seek $20 million in federal funding that could help develop passenger rail service from Newton to the Oklahoma border.

The money would be used for upgrades on a freight train route. Kansas is asking for $10 million from the federal stimulus package and $10 million from the 2010 federal highway bill.

The Kansas Department of Transportation and Amtrak are funding a study to determine the feasibility of state-supported train service from Kansas City, Mo., to Fort Worth, Texas. Officials expect to complete the study by fall. The route would rely on the Southwest Chief from Kansas City to Newton, then re-establish a route into Oklahoma discontinued more than 20 years ago.

“We’re ecstatic that KDOT is moving forward,” said Deborah Fischer Stout, president of the Northern Flyer Alliance, a nonprofit organization promoting development of the route. “Both freight and passenger rail are part of critical infrastructure needs to improve economic development.”

The application will specifically target upgrading signal timing for road crossings between Newton and the state line to handle 79 mph passenger train speeds, said Ron Kaufman, Transportation Department chief of public involvement in Topeka.

The signal timing along the route is set for freight trains with top speeds of just 64 mph.

“When a train approaches a signal, how far in advance the signal activates depends on the train’s speed,” Kaufman said. “If the train is going faster, we’ll have to put sensors farther down the track, so the gates have time to come down and cross-traffic has time to stop.”

The stimulus grants are more flexible than other federal passenger rail grant programs because they don’t require matching funds or adoption of a statewide passenger rail plan. However, Kansas officials also are working to develop a rail plan, Kaufman said.

Congress appropriated $9.3 billion in the federal stimulus bill for passenger trains, of which $1.3 billion is devoted to Amtrak and the remainder to high-speed rail corridor development, intercity passenger rail and congestion.

Amtrak announced in March it will devote $1.04 million of its stimulus funding to improvements at the six stations in Kansas serving the Southwest Chief. The projects include signage, platform kiosks, wheelchair lifts and platform improvements.

The legislation makes funding available until September 2010. The Federal Railroad Administration has until June 17 to write rules for applying for the money.

“There’s a tremendous amount of competition for this money,” Kaufman said. “Kansas’ rail program is still in infancy, while other states with projects are farther along than ours. So it’s (receiving funding) a big if.”

The Legislature this year expressed interest in expanded passenger rail but didn’t authorize funding for operating support, Kaufman said.

Oklahoma lawmakers on May 14 adopted a resolution supporting Kansas in its plan and calling for development of a comprehensive rail plan for that state in order to apply for federal railroad matching funds, said Evan Stair, vice president for Oklahoma in the Northern Flyer Alliance.

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