The cost of saving the Southwest Chief: To save the train route the State will need to find the money

An economic impact study published by Colorado State University-Pueblo Economics Professors Kevin Duncan and Michael Wakefield shows extending Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route into Pueblo would boost the local economy and add jobs.

The extension isn’t a guarantee yet though. Marc Megliari, media relations manager for Amtrak, said everything is premature, but Amtrak is “certainly open to it.”  

Currently, the route, which stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles, is in jeopardy of being moved out of Colorado completely, where it runs from Lamar to La Junta and then down to Trinidad, due to expenses associated with upgrading and replacing the track. Amtrak will cease maintenance on the track and move the route into Oklahoma if Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico decide not to help pay for it.

The direct effect of an estimated 3,200 visitors the Pueblo stop would bring is $2.1 million annually, according to the economic impact study. With a multiplier of 1.63, the total economic impact would be a approximately $3.4 million.  

“The spending multiplier indicates that one more dollar in tourism spending is associated with a $1.63 increase in state-level economic activity,” the report stated.

In terms of jobs, the direct $2.1 million creates about 21 tourism jobs, and the spending created by those jobs creates an additional 11 jobs.

“The employment multiplier indicates that each new job directly related to rail tourism supports an additional 0.55 jobs in Colorado, or one more job serving rail tourism results in the creation of 1.55 total jobs.  The economic activity associated with rail tourism generates an additional $175,000 in state and local tax revenue,” said the report.

The benefits for even just maintaining the route could mean more economic activity for the state. 

Amtrak has stated that around 100 miles of rail in Kansas will be replaced, and the economic impact depends on how much of that rail is produced at the Evraz steel mill in Pueblo. If the rail is repaired without work from Evraz, Colorado will see no economic benefit. 

But if Evraz supplies all of the track, Colorado would generate $33 million in economic activity, more than 100 jobs and around $830,000 in local tax revenue, according to the study. If Evraz  supplies only some of the work, the impact would be around $13.2 million, 40 jobs and $335,000 in state and local tax revenue. 

 As for extending the track into Pueblo?

“We estimate that the total cost of maintaining current Southwest Chief service in Colorado and extending passenger rail service to Pueblo is approximately $74 million.  This figure includes the cost of a new station in Pueblo.  If these expenses are paid by the federal government this new spending in Colorado would generate an additional $145 million in economic activity, over 1,000 jobs, and about $4.5 million in state and local tax revenue,” the report said. 

Duncan and Wakefield found that within approximately 14 years economic benefit would match repair costs.        

Over a course of 10 years, the route would create $29-$34 million in revenue, depending on if the Pueblo stop is added, but worry still exists, as it will cost Colorado $40 million for the next decade to repair the track.

“Everybody’s concern is putting state funding into a federally funded issue,” said State Sen. Larry Crowder, who supports the extension. It was a red flag for him at first too, but said after researching, he found that it’s a new idea here but has been done in other states, especially on the East and West Coasts.

Local legislators, Rep. Leroy Garcia and Sen. Crowder, have introduced legislation that would create funding for the upgrades and allow the passenger train a stop in Pueblo.

At first, both legislators drafted separate bills. Crowder’s proposal only included keeping the route in Colorado. But after reading through Garcia’s bill which included extending the track, he said it made sense.

New Mexico has already passed a bill in the house guaranteeing their portion of funding, which will come from oil and gas revenue, but the senate failed to pass any of the five bills that sought to save the route, as the legislative session ended on Feb. 20. 

The legislature did authorize a study and collaboration among Colorado, Kansas and the New Mexico Department of Transportation, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported Feb. 21.

Kansas is also on track to save the route.

“The feeling I get, it’s purely gut feeling, but we won’t be the ones who will stop it,” said John Doll, state representative for Garden City, Kansas. “Out here in southwestern Kansas we’re really worried about it. It’s our only mode of transportation out east.”

While studies show the stop in Pueblo would give an economic boost to the region, Megliari said Amtrak still sees everything as premature, and the revenue it would bring Amtrak is unknown at this point. 

“One of the things that drives revenue is schedule, and what drives schedule is access,” Megliari said. The feasibility, he said, would have to be discussed with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation, because they own the tracks that would be used, when the time comes.

For Kansas, Doll said the primary goal is to save the route, but a stop in Pueblo would increase ridership and boost the economy, though it is unclear how much the town would be impacted.

Another track, which would run from Newton, Kansas to Oklahoma City, is also being discussed. Doll said it would also increase economic revenue for Garden City. “I’d love to see both happen,” Doll said, but if a stop in Pueblo is what seals the deal and approves the $40 million, he supports it.

A New Mexico legislature couldn’t be reached, but Melissa Dosher, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Department of Transportation, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the CSU-Pueblo study was too geographically specific to tell if the stop would benefit New Mexico. 

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