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Effort to bring Amtrak service to Wichita proceeds

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- Kansas transportation officials and Wichita city officials are backing a city council member's push to persuade Amtrak to expand passenger rail service to the city.

Officials from the Kansas Department of Transportation, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration have said an initial planning study for the expanded service through Wichita was "a good first step that gets us in the game," said council member Pete Meitzner, who started the effort nine months ago.

Meitzner wants the Amtrak passenger route that runs from Dallas to Oklahoma City, called the Heartland Express, to stop in Wichita. It also could expand from Fort Worth to Kansas City, The Wichita Eagle (http://bit.ly/108gNUj ) Sunday.

The Wichita City Council also is supporting Meitzner by making funding for more passenger rail studies a lobbying priority in the legislative session that begins Monday.

Wichita commercial developer Gary Oborny, who has a letter of intent to buy the city's downtown rail hub, Union Station, said he would include a rail terminal if his development proposal is accepted by the station's current owner, Cox Communications.

Oborny said the Wichita Metro Chamber believes enhanced rail service would help efforts to bring commerce -- and visitors -- to downtown Wichita.

"That's why this effort is crucial," he said. "The one thing we have to do right now is make sure we're on the field and ready to play."

Kansas Transportation Secretary Mike King and his governmental affairs chief, Lindsay Douglas are talking to Oklahoma officials, who are currently more interested in a more northeast route for the Heartland Flyer toward Tulsa than the Wichita stop, Douglas said.

"They are interested in offering new service, but the towns north of Oklahoma City along the Heartland line are interested in service there, too," she said. "So there might be a sort of competing interest there."

Douglas said the next step is an environmental study, which would cost Kansas $3 million and Oklahoma $2.3 million if no federal assistance is obtained.

A planned regional passenger rail workshop with the Federal Railroad Administration will show the federal government that Kansas and Oklahoma are serious enough about passenger rail to need federal funds, Douglas said.

The biggest hurdles could be Gov. Sam Brownback's budget proposal, which will be released on Jan. 16, and the willingness of the federal government to provide grant funding, Douglas said.

The latest project estimates, from 2011, are a little more than $87 million to run from Newton into Texas, although that number changes frequently.

"Right now, there are a lot of demands on funds at the state level," Douglas said. "Depending on the governor's budget that comes out on the 16th, we're all trying to figure out where our resources are and prioritize our investments. There are opportunities for federal funds, and we're making sure that if federal funds become available, we can apply and be competitive."

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Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com