The Colorado Department of Transportation Commission voted unanimously to approve 1 million dollars to help preserve the Southwest Chief rail line in southern Colorado. It’s part of a route that stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles. Bente Birkeland has more from the state capitol.
The aging track needs major upgrades or Amtrak will have to reroute the line out of Colorado and parts of New Mexico and Kansas. The train stops in Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad, in southeastern Colorado.
Republican state Senator Larry Crowder of Alamosa tried to get money for the track during the state’s legislative session, but his efforts failed there because of competing priorities in the state budget.
“The long-term goal is to create a transportation that would benefit not only southern Colorado, but also the rest of the state,” said Crowder.
He said he didn’t expect the eleven-member transportation commission to vote unanimously to allocate the 1 million dollars.
“I’d run some legislation on this and it didn’t pass, so this was basically our last resort.”
Colorado led by La Junta along with Kansas and New Mexico is applying for a federal transportation grant to help repair the track, but it requires local matching funds. Last year the project won 12.5 million dollars, but Colorado didn’t contribute as a state. La Junta city manager Rick Klein drove to Denver to testify at the commission meeting. He has been working for several years to try and save the line. He said it was time for Colorado to step up to the plate especially because Kansas committed 3 million dollars last year.
“I was nervous because we have so much funds that are being leveraged and they were waiting on this vote to make sure that Colorado was in,” said Klein.
Kansas was not willing to put in more money unless Colorado did, but Klein said with the state’s 1 million dollar commitment, Kansas has agreed to put in that amount. New Mexico is also planning to add local matching funds this year. Klein called it a victory for America; a country that he said was built on great rail. He also believes there’s currently a shift happening away from cars.
“That’s the way the nation is going, people in bigger cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, they can’t afford to have a garage and a car so mass transit is their link to the rest of America and if we want tourists and we want growth, we have to be part of that link too.”
For many riders the train is also a fun way to travel. Sixty-eight year old Robert Rynerson lives in Denver and testified at the hearing. He said he rides the Southwest chief about four times each year to California and other parts of the country. Rynerson said he’s met a lot of interesting people over the years, from a Bolivian diplomat to a Hollywood actress. He has Parkinson’s disease and said it’s also a good way to see the country’s geography.
“I don’t think it should be held tight for people that are young and out there hiking or biking. I think it aught to be available to senior citizens also,” said Rynerson.
Supporters of the Southwest Chief said preserving the line is simply the first step. They’d eventually like to expand it to include stops in Pueblo, Alamosa, and Walsenberg. But federal funding for Amtrak is always hotly debated, and competition for the grants is high. The latest federal grant application is due in early June. By fall, Colorado will know whether it secured the next 20 million dollars or more. Amtrak and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, the freight carrier that owns the track are also contributing money.