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Proposed expansion of passenger rail would mean more transportation options for Oklahomans

Passengers line up to board the Heartland Flyer at Oklahoma City's Santa Fe Depot. The passenger train is a once-daily round trip line from OKC to Fort Worth, TX.
Kateleigh Mills
Passengers line up to board the Heartland Flyer at Oklahoma City's Santa Fe Depot. The passenger train is a once-daily round trip line from OKC to Fort Worth, Texas.

As a bipartisan bill that would dedicate $1.2 trillion dollars to improving the nation’s infrastructure waits for the congressional lawmakers to take action, Oklahoma public radio reporters have been asking people what they would improve in our state if they had the chance. More public transportation options is one of the most common responses.

At Oklahoma City’s historic Santa Fe Depot, an art-deco building that harkens back to when passenger rail was prominent in Oklahoma, passengers are boarding here to go south towards Fort Worth, Texas.

The Heartland Flyer is a once-daily round trip passenger train that came online in 1999. It’s the only passenger rail line in the state, but that could be changing.

Earlier this year, Amtrak put out a 15-year plan which proposes various lines and enhancements to be implemented by the year 2035 around the country, including a new service between OKC and Newton, Kansas.

Jack Mayhew, the mechanical foreman at the Santa Fe Depot, said the possibility of expanding a line into Kansas has been a topic of discussion for years. Cities like Edmond and Guthrie passed resolutions earlier this year in support of the expansion, and it has the backing of the state legislature, too.

When Amtrak laid out its proposed map — and Congress started talking about funding infrastructure — it got Mayhew’s attention.

"I really hope it does pass because our country is kind of hurting for infrastructure," Mayhew said. "I've always been in transportation my entire life, and this is desperately needed."

In the bipartisan infrastructure bill, $66 billon would be dedicated towards passenger and freight rail. The extension of the Heartland Flyer into Kansas would not only mean new stops going north, but it would also open both Oklahoma and Texas passengers to much of the country.

"Currently, we have a bus bridge between here and Newton, Kansas and that really discourages people, but it only makes one stop and that's in Wichita," Mayhew said. "For us to open it up and go north, you don't have to come to Oklahoma City to board the train. You can go to Guthrie or onto Perry or Ponca City instead of backtracking down here."

Heartland Flyer Extension Map
Heartland Flyer Extension Map

Jared Schwennesen, the Multi-Modal Division Manager for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, said the line into Kansas currently only supports freight trains.

"The problem they get into is really how to accommodate freight and passenger rail on this line that currently doesn't have passenger rail," Schwennesen said.

In 2020, BNSF estimated the preliminary capital investment cost for the line to have it support passenger rail would be $124.4 million dollars. As for economic impact, Amtrak has projected the Heartland Flyer extension would generate $64.8 million dollars annually, plus $1.9 billion dollars from one-time capital investments.

If the Heartland Flyer extension proposal is put in place as it is now, that would mean enhancing the existing once daily round trip to three daily round trips between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, and adding a new service from OKC to Newton, Kansas.

But even with all the support that the extension has, one problem remains:

"Prior to this infrastructure bill, it's been financing," Mayhew said.

But, for Mayhew, who has worked with Amtrak for nearly a decade, has one thing to remind folks.

"The big thing is: be patient," Mayhew said. "Government works slowly, but the push is there to have this done. It just takes time."

What remains to be seen is how long it will take Congress to act, if it does at all, and how high of a priority this new line will be for Amtrak.

Kateleigh Mills was the Special Projects reporter for KOSU from 2019 to 2024.
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