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Return Kansas railroads to their glory days

Return Kansas railroads to their glory days

The Wichita Eagle

By Shelby Smith

Amid the deluge of spending proposals emanating from the Obama administration, at least one deserves serious consideration here in the Wheat State, where unused and underused rail beds slice through miles and miles of waving grain.

Built and maintained for decades, the railroads here took Kansas' agricultural bounty to a hungry world. Local freights gathered the wheat from small-town elevators along the Missouri Pacific, Union Pacific and the Santa Fe, from Scott City and Goodland and Great Bend. Up through the 1950s, a workable schedule of passenger trains sped along those routes as well.

As President Obama suggested at an April news conference, he believes that we need high-speed railroads in America. It would be one of Obama's legacies.

We've had those railroads before, you know: During World War II, steam-powered locomotives pulled troop trains through Kansas at speeds of 100 mph.

But today, so much of our commerce goes to interstate trucking, and almost all of our long-distance personal and business travel is restricted to the airlines and the family automobile. How utterly and needlessly sad.

We'd be more than well served to find in passenger rail a new option for affordable, comfortable travel. Every taxpayer should come to realize that the resurrection of our rail infrastructure would come faster, cheaper and easier than the construction of more freeways and more hub-airports — even as the newfound benefits of reduced fuel consumption and fewer noxious emissions take hold.

I'm finding reasons for optimism just about everywhere. Gov. Mark Parkinson's business experience has taught him to look five to 10 years ahead, far beyond this year's agenda — a mindset he shares with Kansas Department of Transportation Secretary Deb Miller.

I would be remiss to not give credit to the Northern Flyer Alliance, that very enterprising ad hoc group of rail-travel enthusiasts that was the driving force for the Amtrak/KDOT study of the extension of service from Oklahoma City to Kansas City, and which has secured endorsements for the project from more than a dozen Kansas cities.

KDOT has invested $200,000 in the study, which should be published this fall. It will detail costs, routes and schedules. Meanwhile, KDOT plans to seek $20 million in federal funding — $10 million from the stimulus package and $10 million from the 2010 federal highway bill — and Amtrak will devote $1 million of its stimulus money to the upgrading of six Kansas stations for platform improvements, the addition of wheelchair lifts, and so forth. The Legislature will need to fund only operating expenses for the Amtrak initiatives.

The Kansas Legislature wisely postponed for a year a new 10-year comprehensive transportation plan. It should grow out of a long-range look at economic growth for our state.

I am reminded of the spectacular growth that followed the Northern Flyer on its extended route. Oklahoma towns along the route averaged $4 million in new economic activity in the first year after the arrival of passenger rail service.

I congratulate everyone at work on returning Kansas railroads to their rightful glory days. I call on the Legislature to fund operational support for the Amtrak initiatives. And I urge every Kansan to explore personally the rewards waiting in improved rail service for our families, our communities and our country.

Shelby Smith of Wichita is a former lieutenant governor of Kansas.

© 2009 Wichita Eagle and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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