SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico legislative session failed to make any commitment Thursday to fund the state’s share of costs to keep Amtrak’s Southwest Chief on its current route.
The New Mexican reported (http://bit.ly/1hdSAjy ) that the session ended without the passage of any of the five bills seeking ways to maintain the passenger train line.
Amtrak has proposed that New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas all chip in to improve and maintain more than 600 miles of track through their states.
The company says the Southwest Chief’s route might change otherwise, causing some communities to lose passenger service.
And the rail operator would need to reach a deal with Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which owns the track Amtrak uses. Burlington officials announced they will stop maintaining the track in January 2016.
“I am disappointed, because I feel like there’s so much at stake, not only for my district but for all of New Mexico,” said Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, who represents several northern New Mexico counties. “Fortunately, Amtrak’s lease with BNSF doesn’t expire for more than a year, so we will have one more bite at the apple.”
A legislative panel earlier this month agreed to commission a study on whether the state should pay. The study is scheduled to be completed by the time next year’s legislative session begins.
A cost-sharing arrangement would require each state and two railroads to contribute $4 million a year for 10 years. If no deal is reached, Southwest Chief might eliminate stops in Lamy, Las Vegas and Raton as well as Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad, Colo., and several western Kansas towns, including Garden City.
Garden City Mayor Dan Frankhauser said the states need to find funding before the fast-approaching deadline.
“Waiting another year, that’s going to be cutting it right down to the wire,” Frankhauser said. “We’re all going to have to make some decisions. It’s going to be here before we know it.”
Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would pay for extending the route to include Pueblo. The bill was passed unanimously by a legislative committee last week. Colorado state Rep. Leroy Garcia, who is pushing the legislation, is optimistic that New Mexico could agree to keep Southwest Chief.
“Time has always been of the essence, and I don’t think this is ideal,” Garcia said. “Does it give any of us the wiggle room we’d like? No. But it doesn’t mean the end of this.”
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration has so far expressed reluctance to immediately commit money. Martinez has said that Amtrak is funded by Congress and any agreement should not leave New Mexico taxpayers with a large bill.
Roch said possible ideas for funding include localized taxes in cities and communities that would benefit from Southwest Chief to more private-sector use of the rails.
“I think that’s where our best hope lies,” Roch said. “I’ve engaged the governor directly on that. She’s committed to support those efforts. That would fix the issue without an investment of tax dollars.”