The Arkansas Department of Transportation is starting to revise the state railroad plan. This is an opportunity for ORBTS to move the needle – again. This happened before. Here’s the story: in 2018 and 2019 the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission paid for a survey of regional transportation needs including public transportation.
ORBTS was just starting up. With something like 140 members we got involved and engaged the study. Our members took the time to go to public meetings and fill out online surveys. We made our desire known for passenger rail, though at the time I was, and we were, thinking of local commuter rail in 2019. We made it known that we were in favor of Battery Electric Buses, and a shuttle bus out to the airport.
ORBTS did indeed move the needle. We may have RPC took our comments and did look at all these items. If you look at Connect NWA the report that details the results of the study, these things were considered. There was a cost analysis for building commuter rail ($650 or so million) and light rail (built from scratch at $1 billion). A shuttle bus to the airport was considered but not recommended at the time.
Since then a lot has changed for the better. Last year Congress passed The Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act, AKA The Infrastructure Bill, that allocates $66 billion for passenger rail to be spent over a 5 year period. Part of that money is going to a new train fleet for Amtrak. These are Siemens trains built in California. That means there is an assembly line up and running RIGHT NOW building up to date throughly modern passenger trains right here in the USA.
Then Canadian Pacific is buying the Kansas City Southern Railroad. CP is at the top of Amtrak’s list of freight line companies that cooperate with Amtrak. The CP KCS line includes a fully functioning railroad from Kansas City to Dallas Texas that runs through Northwest Arkansas. InterCity passenger rail in our area is now a possibility.
As ArDot starts revising their state rail plan this is our chance to engage again. Now ORBTS has 630+ members with almost 190 in a related group; Arkansas Rail Riders. When ArDot starts asking for input on a state rail plan we at ORBTS can ask for a number of things. When everything is added together, we are in a great place to connect some of our dying rural communities with larger cities. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions and therefore save lives. Get our citizens into train travel is fun. And create a bunch of good paying jobs. Did you know that train steel wheels are manufactured here in Arkansas? And that we now have the most modern steel mill in the USA? Railroads can’t use juke yard steel, they need fresh virgin steel. This keeps getting better and better for Arkansas.
Here are some of the things we can ask for in the revised rail plan. We are going to want to make host railroads full business partners in providing passenger rail. That means they will take some of the risks, share some costs, but they will also get some of the financial rewards (i.e. make some money). We want an interstate passenger rail compact with the surrounding states so we share costs, risk, and rewards with our neighbors/partners. We want a dedicated HSR passenger service between Little Rock and NWA – at least. This could connect us to Memphis TN, or Dallas TX or Oklahoma City as well. We want to see new build passenger rail stations up and down the line. We want to maximize the creation of small business opportunities around the new stations. Starting with no sales tax charged for Arkansas based business. Like Slim Chicken, or a local coffee roaster, or Wal Mart/Harps. This applies only in Arkansas of course.
What else do we need to ask for in terms of passenger rail in Arkansas? What else would you like to see? And keep your eyes peeled. This should be coming up in March or April. Of course we will keep you posted.