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Oklahoma, Kansas apply for planning funds to link OKC to bevy of destinations by passenger rail

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, TX.

Oklahomans and Kansans are one step closer to being connected by train.

Passenger rail could be coming soon to link OKC to Newton, Kansas, but it will still take a while longer.

Earlier this year, both the Oklahoma and Kansas Departments of Transportation jointly applied for the Federal Railroad Administration's Corridor Identification and Development Program — also known as Corridor ID program.

The grant program was established by the FRA after the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill was passed in 2021. The Corridor ID program is intended to facilitate the development of intercity passenger rail corridors across the country.

At a Kansas Rail Caucus meeting last week, legislators, transportation officials, citizens and cities that would be impacted gathered to hear about the latest updates — and to get ideas from other states that have beefed up their passenger rail infrastructure.

Cory Davis, the Director of Multimodal Transportation and Innovation at KDOT, gave an update on the Heartland Flyer Extension proposal to the caucus members.

"We’re in the planning phase where we are developing a service development plan that kind of provide a roadmap for moving the service forward," Davis said. "Our goal right now is to get in that pipeline to be able to access those federal funds."

Heartland Flyer Extension Map
Heartland Flyer Extension Map

At the meeting, Bryan Ross, the Railroad Operations Manager for the Missouri Department of Transportation, also spoke.

Ross said there are regional impacts when states make improvements to transportation infrastructure like passenger rail.

"What one state does does not operate in a vacuum," Ross said. "The benefits and improvements that are made in one state have spill over effects."

Ross said there are more cost savings and higher passenger satisfaction when tracks go further and connect to different cities on the same lines.

In his presentation, Ross brought up the success of the Missouri River Runner — including generating 1,250 jobs, $65 million in annual labor income and $208 million in annual economic activity. Plus, there is more than $22 million in annual tax revenue generated - according to the 2021 Economic Impact Study of the River Runner.

All those numbers were made possible, Ross says, from state support of the line - as well as the MORPAC group — which consists of MoDOT, Legislators, representatives from each community served by the passenger rail, Amtrak, Union Pacific and rail interest groups.

If Oklahoma and Kansas are awarded the grant from the Corridor ID program, that would begin a process of planning and development.

In 2021, ODOT officials told KOSU one challenge is figuring out how to "accommodate freight and passenger rail on this line that currently doesn't have passenger rail."

BNSF estimated the preliminary capital investment cost for the line to have it support passenger rail would be $124.4 million dollars in 2020. 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.

Since then, support from the communities that would be impacted by putting in a passenger rail line have rallied their support together.

Davis told the caucus he anticipates learning the grant results later this year.

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