This past week at the Rail Passengers Association meeting I learned a great deal about how Amtrak’s future spending will be prioritized. I thought about how to break this down when I came upon this video which covers the basic points I wanted to make. I also had a short conversation with RPA President Jim Matthews about Arkansas and possible new routes which I will cover below.
The Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act, aka the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law plus new dedicated funding for Amtrak, provides most of the money for upgrading railways, buying new train sets, and building new stations. There is almost too much to cover in a short document. There are two plans for Amtrak: the Northeast Corridor and the Connects US Plan. The Connects US Plan is a 15 year vision to add 20 million new passengers by 2035, add new daily trips in 15 states with 30 new routes to 160 unserved (and below the poverty line) communities. Amtrak will use preexisting railroads to control costs which is what Amtrak does now. If you will watch the video, you will notice that Arkansas is not included.
Most of the Amtrak in Arkansas discussions center around expanding the Texas Eagle to twice a day. Yes, we want that but that still leaves most of Arkansas population out of the expansion. Recall that 70% of our states population lives in an area from Northwest Arkansas to Little Rock. I, and we as a group, have spent the last several years looking at the possibilities for more passenger rail routes in Arkansas. If we can get our share of the pie, we can create at least 3 new routes and maybe squeeze in a 4th.
NWA GO aren’t the only eyes looking at the possibilities for Arkansas. At the RPA conference a couple of days ago, Jim Matthews told me he intended to talk to me about our situation. He was called away by some other business so we didn’t get to talk very long. But he sees potential for Arkansas getting more new routes. We are unserved, and many impoverished, rural communities in Arkansas will benefit from regular passenger rail service. Arkansas is on target to get consideration for new routes. He also stated that under Federal Law the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad has to host Amtrak. Under the charter that established Amtrak in 1971, freight railroads get a $3 billion a year subsidy from the Federal government to not provide passenger service. In return they have to let Amtrak use their rails.
I told him we were eyeballing one new route from Kansas City MO to Shreveport LA that would unite the Mid-West Interstate Passenger Rail Commission to the Gulf Coast Route. Within our group we have talked about a High Speed Rail from NWA to Little Rock and then on to Memphis. Then we might look at a rail route to Tulsa or a HSR from Little Rock to Dallas. This isn’t just pie in the sky thinking anymore. The IIJA, increase in Amtrak spending, and other Federal funding make the reality of these routes much more likely.
Part of all this is the Corridor Identification Program. The CID opens up each year to suggestions for new routes. I will spend the next few months getting our ducks in a row to apply for at least the KC to Shreveport route. Also under the new Federal laws named above, the Amtrak Board of Directors will increase and new members from unserved communities will have a seat. And that includes Arkansas.
We have a lot of work to do. We will need dedicated funding for mass transit as part of this. We will need more from the Arkansas DOT, and I need to talk to stake holders. Getting all these new routes may be asking a lot. I’m going for it. #MakeTheAsk
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