Eclectic commentary from a progressive voice in the red state

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Is Amarillo's purchase of a train station on the right track?

EuroStar trains poised to return to London from
Paris' Gard du Nord station.
The potential of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief is all over the news the last few days, with the attention in Amarillo triggered, in part, by the City Commission’s decision to spend $2.6 million to buy the old Santa Fe train station. Normally I would be doing back flips of joy over that kind of news. But this time I am a wary that this is another in a long line of the City Commission’s stupid and ill-conceived fiscal profligacy.

I would like to remind the community that The Amarillo Independent broke this story more than a year ago after attending a “Rail Summit” in Fort Worth in august 2012. At that meeting, we learned that the cost for keeping the Chief on its present route — the so-called traditional one — would be $100 million over the next 10 years. Those dollars were to maintain the tracks from Kansas into Colorado and over Raton Pass into New Mexico so the train could travel the 79 mph needed to meet its schedule.

While calling 79 mph high-speed is laughable, it is also no secret that the United States is far behind Europe with transportation infrastructure, so, I guess, in American terms, it is. But both in Great Britain and on the continent, trains cruise in the triple-digit range. An intercity train from London to York or Peterborough in England, somewhat the equivalent of going, say, from Fort Worth to Amarillo, travels at 125 mph. And, of course, the EuroStar connecting London to Paris in 2½ hours or less zips across parts of the countryside at 186 mph. Other trains on the continent run much faster as do the bullet trains in Japan. And all this rail travel is generally safe, greener than flying and contributes to less crowded skies. The U.S. should do the same, but it seems we are better these days at bombing and destroying countries than building up our own.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway has stopped freight service over the Raton Pass trackage and curtailed right of way maintenance; the Chief could not run “high speed” on the tracks. Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas were asked to come up with the money, but not only have they not so far, but New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez also cut and ran from a contract to buy BNSF tracks from Raton to Lamy. That deal would have let the New Mexico Railrunner serve the route from Belen, N.M. to Raton, N.M., opening opportunities for economic development and funneling passengers to the Chief.

As the time grows short and communities along the traditional route panic about losing service, The Garden City Telegram reported the cost of the maintenance doubled to $200 million. That puts the traditional route farther out of reach but it bodes well for the train being routed along the BNSF Trans-Con, which would take the Chief through Amarillo and into Clovis before turning west for the remaining miles to Los Angeles.

So, while there is a certain nostalgic appeal to using the old Santa Fe depot as the Amtrak station, the City Commission and city leadership have not leveled with the community about the full cost. Nor, have they told us about any of the alternatives, some of which could be much cheaper. First, the building isn’t worth $2.6 million and, even with the additional land that City Manager Jarrett Atkinson said was part of the deal, I have to ask if that is the highest and best use. I understand that the platform needs significant renovation to meet Amtrak’s standards and no one has posited what those dollars would be or from when they would come. Nor, if the station were to become a multi-modal hub à la the old Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque or the multi-modal center in Fort Worth, have the commissioners and the city told us what those costs would be and how those expenses would be funded. This will be especially tricky in light of the “no new taxes” pledge for downtown development.

Further, while the appeal is undeniable for the Amtrak stop to be downtown, were any options explored for another location?

The decision for routing the Chief through here is a long way off, but I commend the city leadership for looking at it. It’s something I pushed for. But the city has played this one too close to the vest, as it does with most things. The commissioners continue their arrogant ways of dismissing real and valid citizen and taxpayer concerns. That may be a good way to run a railroad, but railroading this deal isn’t a good way to run a democracy. Ultimately, the taxpayers will pay for the mistakes. Here’s hoping the ride won’t be too expensive.