Efforts to fund much-needed repairs to Amtrak's Southwest Chief line got an extra boost Monday as the U. S. Department of Transportation awarded $15.2 million to the project. Combined with matching funds, the grant, known as a TIGER grant, totals $24.5 million.
"This is really a huge win," said Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, who also heads the state's Southwest Chief commission. "And [it] shows that if you put aside your differences, you forget about party, if you forget about state lines, if you all work together you can accomplish great things."
The long-distance rail line travels from Chicago to Los Angeles through western Kansas, southern Colorado, and northern New Mexico, with stops in Lamar, La Junta, and Trinidad, Colorado as well as Raton, New Mexico. The tracks are in need of significant upgrades and repairs in order to maintain passenger rail speeds. Amtrak had said they would need to look at rerouting the line in the absence of a viable plan for repairs and upgrades to the tracks.
Monday's announcement is the second TIGER grant in two years awarded for the work, for a total of more than $46 million.
"Between [last year's successful] TIGER VI and [this year's] TIGER VII, we will have accomplished half of the immediate repairs," said Pace. "And [track owner] BNSF has agreed to cover the annual maintenance on it."
Federal officials said earlier this year that the number of applicants vying for a portion of the $500 million available for TIGER VII transportation projects was "overwhelming," The U.S. Department of Transportation received 625 applications, with requests totaling $9.8 billion.
La Junta was the lead applicant for this year's Southwest Chief grant, led by city manager Rick Klein. Klein said he's ecstatic, and that he's been hearing congratulatory words from people in the La Junta community.
"To La Junta," Klein said, "this means that we know that we will still remain connected to the rest of the nation through mass transit."
The grant application included matching funds from individual entities, as well as $1 million each from Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas. It's the first time the states of Colorado and New Mexico have contributed to the project. The Colorado Department of Transportation Commission voted unanimously in May to approve the funds, contingent on the award.
The grant application also included a $4 million commitment from Amtrak and $2 million from BNSF.
It was just announced last week that last year's grant, TIGER VI, would use steel manufactured in Pueblo by EVRAZ Rocky Mountain Steel. Between that and this week's TIGER VII grant announcement, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the company is on "cloud nine," but added that there's still work to be done, including on Raton Pass.
"The most intense part of this work being done now here in 2015 is for the section of track that was wearing out the fastest," said Magliari, referencing last year's grant. "This next grant will take care of more track heading across Colorado and into New Mexico, and then we'll do the rest of that work, hopefully we'll keep competing successfully for these grants and keep getting the work done past 2016."
Magliari said it's unlikely for two TIGER grants to be successful and a third to fail. He said he expects a city in New Mexico to take the lead on a third application, but that it's too early to tell. La Junta City Manager Rick Klein estimates that a third grant would need to be in the realm of $30 million.
Original assessments for retaining the Southwest Chief on its current line put the total cost of repairs and maintenance at around $200 million. Last week, Ray Lang, Senior Director of State Government Affairs with Amtrak, said the grants change the equation because as part of the successful application, BNSF committed to maintaining the infrastructure.
"So essentially they've absorbed $100 million in maintenance obligations for that infrastructure for the next decade and beyond," said Lang. "So we really cut that number in half and actually less than that now. We've been able to sharpen our pencils and get the one-time infrastructure costs down. So I think we can do this in Kansas and Colorado in three TIGER grants."
New Mexico, Lang said, is a little bit different.
"We still have an issue that we're going to have to face in New Mexico, but New Mexico put in matching capital dollars for this TIGER application, so they've made a strong commitment to this train too, and I don't want to diminish that."
Lang said that he's optimistic.
"We have three state transportation departments that have made capital matching funds available, Amtrak has made capital matching funds available, and BNSF has. So we have five entities that are committed to this train and I think we'll find a way through this."
Sal Pace, head of the state's Southwest Chief Commission, said after this second TIGER grant award, they can now start putting more focus on bringing the Southwest Chief to Pueblo, and ultimately, passenger rail to the Front Range, connecting Pueblo to Colorado Springs and Denver.