SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – A legislative panel agreed Tuesday to commission a study on whether New Mexico should pay part of the cost for keeping Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route.
However, Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration expressed reluctance to immediately commit money for a proposal by Amtrak to have New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas help pay for maintaining and improving more than 600 miles of track through their states.
“We don’t know what we’re getting into,” Transportation Secretary Tom Church told the House Transportation and Public Works Committee.
He said it’s uncertain how much capital improvements would cost for a section of the Amtrak route that runs in New Mexico from Raton to Lamy, a small community outside Santa Fe.
Amtrak has warned that the Southwest Chief’s route might be changed, causing some communities to lose passenger service, if the rail operator can’t reach a new deal with Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which owns the track used by Amtrak across Kansas, Colorado and into New Mexico.
Amtrak’s operating agreement with BNSF expires in January 2016.
The Southwest Chief route travels between Chicago and Los Angeles, but the portion of the route that’s jeopardized runs from the central Kansas community of Newton to Albuquerque, N.M.
Ray Lang, Amtrak’s state government relations chief, told the House committee that BNSF doesn’t want to improve track used by slower-moving freight trains to meet high speed requirements for passenger trains. He said it’s doubtful that Congress would provide money for track improvements.
To keep the Southwest Chief on its current route, Amtrak has proposed that New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas share the costs of track maintenance and upgrades with the rail operator and BNSF. Each would provide about $4 million annually for a decade. BNSF hasn’t taken a position on the proposal, however.
The committee approved a measure to allocate $150,000 for a study of the costs and benefits of New Mexico joining with the state states to preserve the Amtrak line on its current route. Potential legal issues also would be examined. The panel also directed the department to pursue money for the study from the New Mexico Finance Authority.
The constitution’s anti-donation clause bars New Mexico from making donations to private individuals or entities. Church said in an interview that could pose a hurdle to a cost-sharing arrangement with BNSF and Amtrak, which was established by the federal government but is considered a private company.
The committee also approved a measure to create a fund that could be used for costs of the Southwest Chief route but there’s no money in it. The panel stripped out $4 million that had been proposed as a first installment for the cost sharing.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said lawmakers could consider earmarking a portion of capital improvement bond financing for track costs.
Both measures head to a House committee that handles budget issues. The House and Senate must approve the proposals before they could go to the governor.
Lang said he was pleased by the committee’s decisions despite no firm agreement from New Mexico to provide money.
“It’s very clear direction from the state Legislature now that they’re interested in doing something,” Lang said after the committee meeting.
Local government officials told lawmakers that it would be economically devastating if passenger service ended. BNSF no longer uses the route in northeastern New Mexico for freight and it could abandon the line if Amtrak stops using the track.
– By BARRY MASSEY, Associated Press
(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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