SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico plans to study whether to help pay part of the cost of keeping Amtrak's Southwest Chief on its current route.
A state budget signed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez allocates $50,000 to the Legislative Council Service to study a proposal by Amtrak for New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas to share the costs of maintaining and improving more than 600 miles of track through their states.
John Yaeger of the Legislative Council Service said legal issues will be considered as well as the costs and economic benefits of the proposal. Legislative staff plans to meet with the state Department of Transportation later this week to begin working out details of the study.
Amtrak has suggested the three states share maintenance costs with it and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which owns the track. Each would provide about $4 million annually for a decade.
The Southwest Chief travels between Chicago and Los Angeles, but part of the current route is in jeopardy because of questions about maintenance and upgrades of track from central Kansas to southeastern Colorado and across northeastern New Mexico to Albuquerque.
Amtrak's operating agreement with BNSF expires in 2016. An Amtrak official told New Mexico lawmakers earlier this year that BNSF doesn't want to improve some track used by its slower-moving freight trains to meet higher speed requirements needed for Amtrak's passenger trains.
Amtrak contends it can't cover the full cost and will have to consider shifting the Southwest Chief to a more southern route along a different BNSF line if there's no agreement on maintaining current track.
The New Mexico communities of Raton, Las Vegas and Lamy, which is near Santa Fe, would lose passenger rail service if the southern route was used. It's possible Amtrak could continue serving Albuquerque.
New Mexico owns former BNSF track between Albuquerque and Lamy, and uses it for a commuter rail service. The rail company no longer operates freight service on its northeastern New Mexico track.
Colfax County Commissioner Bill Sauble said Tuesday it's critical for the study to be completed quickly to allow the 2015 Legislature to decide whether to provide financial support for keeping the Southwest Chief's current route.
"I think we're almost out of time. We've got to have something through the next legislative session or I think it's probably going to be very, very difficult to keep it open," said Sauble, who's part of a coalition of local government officials lobbying to keep the current rail route.
Colorado lawmakers are considering a measure that would establish a state fund and commission to help preserve the Southwest Chief's route and potentially add a stop in the community of Pueblo.
- By BARRY MASSEY, Associated Press
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