As Kansas takes reins on Oklahoma/Kansas passenger rail line, Oklahoma waits to see results

Oklahoma is in a prime position with passenger rail, especially with a designation as a federal high-speed corridor.

Kansas doesn't have that luxury, but that's not stopping Oklahoma's northern neighbor from taking steps toward a passenger line that connects it to Oklahoma City. With pre-applications and studies in the works, Kansas is working toward a possible rail route into Oklahoma City, and as it does, Oklahoma is watching closely.


"We are interested partners with the state of Kansas," said David Streb, director of engineering for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. "Kansas has initiated a study through Amtrak, and there have been a few meetings we've been party to. Right now, we're anxiously awaiting those results."

But until those results come through, the idea of expanding the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City into Kansas City is just that " an idea.

In July, the Kansas Department of Transportation filed pre-applications for three federal grants totaling more than $17 million to improve passenger service. Of that money, $10 million would be used to improve the existing line from Newton, just north of Wichita, Kan., to the Oklahoma border. Another nearly $7 million would be used for track improvements between the Kansas towns of Emporia and Barclay. The remaining funds, $500,000, would be for a Service Development Plan (SDP) to consider other elements necessary for service between Kansas City and Oklahoma City.

This SDP would build on the findings of the Amtrak Expansion Feasibility Study (expected to be completed by the end of 2009) that will estimate the infrastructure needs and potential costs of expanded passenger rail service between Kansas City and Oklahoma City via a connection to the Heartland Flyer service to Fort Worth, Texas.

"KDOT, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, Amtrak and a number of Oklahoma and Kansas legislators held a teleconference to refine the plan for stimulus funds," said Mark Corriston, the Kansas vice president for the Northern Flyer Alliance.

"I wouldn't say there's excitement about the plan, but there is commitment to seeing if everything that needs to be in place is in place. The Kansas Legislature will have some information in order to draft a bill and work with the Federal Rail Administration for the stimulus funds. There are just lots of little bits and pieces that need to fit right now."

According to ODOT, until the Kansas study is completed, no plans exist on moving at all on the Oklahoma City to Kansas rail line.

"We are active participants with Kansas, and right now, we are anxiously awaiting the results of that study," said Streb. "We need to study their findings, and it would be jumping the gun otherwise."

Corriston said the price of this line expansion would cost $190 million or less.

"For that or less, we can get the entire line done, which includes the locomotive and three passenger cars," Corriston said. "We already have an Amtrak line that runs across Missouri from Kansas City to St. Louis. It's a five-hour trip that meets in the middle. We feel we could do the same thing from Kansas City to Oklahoma City."

The Missouri line runs at 59 mph, but Corriston anticipated the Kansas City/Oklahoma City line would travel at 60 to 79 mph.

"The track is already operating for freight," he said. "The track is the same quality and grade of the track that operates through Missouri, and all we'd need to do is make some upgrades as far as signaling and crossings."

As far as cost, Corriston claims the funding needed would be minimal compared to other states' needs for passenger rail.

"Oklahoma got its passenger rail service for about $5 or $6 million. I can't imagine why it would cost much more to run a line from Oklahoma City to Newton, Kansas," he said.

Oklahoma is already eyeing passenger rail in the state. ODOT announced in July that an initial step to apply for high-speed rail funding was made, creating a high-speed corridor between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. A cost estimate for the project, which would include improvements from Tulsa to the Texas state line, has been put at just under $2 billion.

ODOT's preliminary application, which was submitted earlier this month, for funding from President Obama's High-Speed Rail Plan includes improvements between Tulsa and the Texas state line south of Ardmore. The route is part of the nationally designated South Central High Speed Rail Corridor.

Terri Angier, spokeswoman for ODOT, said the rail line from OKC to Kansas would not qualify under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act guidelines because the Kansas rail is not designated as a federal rail corridor.

"Kansas doesn't have that designation," said Streb. "We have a unique advantage in that we are in a high-speed corridor route. Kansas may have only a very small part of that, but hopefully, it will play to our advantage." "Heide Brandes

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