Southwest Chief Funding Amendment Initially Passes House

UPDATE 04/14/15: The Joint Budget Committee, charged with negotiating the differences between the House and Senate budget proposals, stripped this funding amendment from the budget. The eventual budget plan will still need approval from both chambers.

ORIGINAL POST 04/09/15: Lawmakers in the House initially passed the state's annual budget yesterday. After hours of debate, the chamber decided to set aside money to help preserve a passenger train that runs through southeastern Colorado. Bente Birkeland has more from the state capitol.

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It was one of several changes lawmakers made to the $9.6 billion general fund, which pays for roads, schools, and health care among other things. 

The Southwest Chief rail line stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles, but segments of the track are aging.  Without major repairs, Amtrak says the track speeds won't be fast enough for passenger rail.  The stretch in Colorado that passes through Trinidad, Lamar, and La Junta could be diverted entirely if rail upgrades don't continue.

"Kansas last year put forth $3 million towards this, they plan on putting a similar amount forward this year," said Sal Pace, Pueblo County Commissioner and head of the Southwest Chief commission.  The former Democratic state lawmaker was lobbying lawmakers to support an amendment that would set aside $1 million for the project and help leverage a federal grant.

"We can't risk losing passenger rail in rural Colorado," Pace said.  "If you talk to rural Colorado, all too often we feel that the metro area doesn't pay attention.  Here is one small way that the state can invest in rural Colorado and southern Colorado."

But Representative Diane Mitsch Bush [D-Steamboat Springs], who serves on the House Transportation and Energy Committee, says lawmakers have to be "realistic," and "fiscally prudent."  Mitsch Bush says while she supports the Southwest Chief line, she doesn't think the state can afford the money in this budget.  "That million comes from somewhere.  This isn't just free money that's sitting over there, it's a matter of balancing back and forth."

Most of the state budget is locked up, and lawmakers only have a limited chance to make changes.  The Constitution requires the legislature to pass a balanced budget.  The state has a month long budgeting process, and Colorado has mandated spending increases in programs like K-12 schools.

Republican representative Tim Dore of Elizabeth was a main sponsor of the Southwest Chief amendment.  "You have what is a transportation need not being met down in southeastern Colorado, where businesses are not able to use the rail line in a beneficial way," said Dore.  "That can hurt the rest of the state.  You really lose another option when it comes to transportation.  You obviously have auto and air, but train has always been important to this country and continues to be."

Kansas and New Mexico also need to upgrade their tracks to preserve the line, and Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway - which owns the tracks - and Amtrak are also contributing money toward the federal grant.  But last week, the senate defeated a similar proposal when it passed the budget, so it's not clear if the Southwest Chief funding will ultimately be approved.  The budget still needs a final house vote, then a conference committee will iron out the differences between the two chambers.

Additional note: Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari recently told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the company is convinced Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico have a "sound plan in place for upkeep of the tracks."  Magliari told the paper that Amtrak has lifted a funding deadline due to progress that's been made.