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Meeting with Kansas Secretary of Transportation - Julie Lorenz

Sunday, August 11, 2019 2:44 PM

Kansas Secretary of Transportation

Julie Lorenz

Arriving early, Mark Corriston and I found ourselves arranging the seating in the sunny overflow space of Scooter’s in Lenexa last Thursday, August 8. We wanted Sec Lorenz and her Deputy Secretary to feel comfortable and relaxed – empowered, essentially to speak openly and honestly with us about the Heartland Flyer Extension and the status of the latest required studies in what seems to be an endless stream of required studies.

After finding the ladies room, I walked to the front of the store ready to order some coffee (early mornings are not my ballywhick). To my surprise, Mark was already talking to Deputy Secretary Lindsay Douglas. Ms. Douglas was friendly and ready to shake my hand. “Sec. Lorenz will be arriving any minute”, I thought. Sure enough, 10 seconds later Sec. Lorenz was at the counter ordering her coffee. How I missed each of them actually entering the building I’ll never know as each are very tall and without their smiles would be intimidating. I was the first to get back to our carefully placed cumfy chairs, and all were right behind me. The two Secretaries smartly chose the seats with their backs to the sun. “Perfect”, I thought as the sun wouldn’t be contorting their faces and we could clearly see their expressions as they spoke – a necessary element in any honest and fruitful discussion.

After I thanked both of them for meeting with us, Lorenz immediately started the conversation by saying she wanted to be totally transparent and honest, which we appreciated. She said the NFA was "slow rolled on last year’s Feasibility Study". Mark and I ruminated about this during the course of our meeting and concluded it was either Lorenz’s predecessor or Gov. Colyer who was Brownback’s Lt. Governor and no friend of passenger rail. Either way the study was a year late getting started. That's the unfortunate bad news.

The good news is that it has started and she is committed to it's completion as KDOT has paid for the study. This news is contrary to a Wichita Councilman’s Facebook post last April, as Amtrak did not pay for the study.

Unfortunately, BNSF is once again dragging their feet, which Lorenz and Douglas clearly found irritating. Conversations with Sen. Moran was Sec. Lorenz’ suggestion of the best way forward. Mark and I concurred as we have met with him many times ourselves and we believe he is the most open to passenger rail service of any Kansas legislators. Consequently, the Secretary spoke of her own conversations with Sen Moran regarding BNSF's continuing lack of cooperation as has Sen. McGinn. KDOT does believe BNSFis telling the truth that all the flooding has put them behind, but aren't buying their timeline of the end of the year for data delivery. This is a huge relief to us as a full year has already been wasted.

On other fronts, we informed Lorenz and Douglas that ODOT recently fined Watco $2.8 M for not starting passenger rail service between Tulsa and OKC as was their contract with ODOT when they bought the Sooner Sub Line. The Northern Flyer Alliance was certain at the time that Watco looked at this obligation as a cost – a premium, if you will for the rail corridor and never intended to bring passenger rail to the two cities. What we do know out of this is that ODOT has nearly $3M that it didn't have last month. This is a potential source of matching funds for the Heartland Flyer Extension. We also informed her that when Pete Meitzner was Chair of WAMPO he said he thought the other communities along the corridor could come up with matching funds to get the project started. Mark and I are pretty sure he is already having these conversations.

The conversation then turned to the outcome of the current study. We reminded her that for the Service Development Plan, BNSF asked for a gold-plated railroad. We were told second hand that after the Inspection Train ran from Dallas to Kansas City in June of 2017, Amtrak officials conceded that the actual cost is a fraction of what that study said it was going to be. So this time around, we beseeched them to not let BNSF do the same thing they did in 2011. Lorenz confidently replied, "don't worry, we're right-sizing everything".

As Sec. Lorenz and Deputy Sec. Douglas were leaving, Lorenz was candid when she said she cannot commit to starting the service, but is committed to finishing the study because she can't know what it's going to take to start the service without the study. Knowing that funding has always been a problem, we left them with information regarding funding sources, including federal grant opportunities which Amtrak has committed to helping them seek.

Should funding end up being a problem, we might need to dust off our pens and write new legislation.

Written by~
Deborah Fischer Stout