BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – An agreement is tentatively on the table for Monday night’s Fort Madison City Council meeting to move the existing Amtrak depot to its former location in Riverview Park.
After years of trying to strike a deal with Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Amtrak to build a platform at the historic depot, and more than a decade in the works, three agreements could be in front of the council at Monday’s meeting. The meeting is being held on Monday due to Tuesday’s general city election.
City Manager David Varley said the agreement right now is on the agenda, but could get pulled for logistical reasons.
Mayor Brad Randolph also said there’s a good chance it could get pulled.
“The original plan was that we would have all the documentation and final agreements for council and public review,” Randolph said. “My concern is that the meeting got moved to Monday and if this agreement isn’t in hand, I don’t know that we’d want to vote on it even though we have a deal in principle. As of this conversation, I still don’t have it in my hand.”
Now while not officially finalized, Randolph said Amtrak and the city have come to a new and improved understanding of the costs going forward.
“That new understanding puts the costs to the city for maintaining the depot and platform in a better position and I’m excited about that. It seems that we’re at the finish line. The only way we wouldn’t vote on it is if I don’t have the agreement in my hand,” he said.
The three agreements are a main lease agreement, which Varley said is very similar to a tenant agreement where Amtrak would pay $400 a month for the first 10 years for operational space inside the depot. The railroad would also pay a metered utility for their office space.
The city would be responsible for other landlord type items such as maintenance, security, landscaping, common area utilities, and services.
There is also a platform sublease. The city, along with the Iowa Department of Transportation and Amtrak, are all contributing to the cost of the $1.2 million platform, but ownership would revert back to Burlington Northern Santa Fe. They would lease the property to Amtrak, which then leases it back to the city for $1 per year. The city would be contributing $360,000, Amtrak would kick in $150,000 and the difference is paid for with state grants.
The third agreement outlines the construction phase and what needs to be done to the platform prior to Amtrak being able to use it for passenger service.
Varley said once the agreements are approved and the mayor signs off on them they go to IDOT and get put in the bid-letting hopper which puts out projects for bid.
“Once they get these, it goes to IDOT and they get a copy of the final approved plans from Amtrak and BNSF, once they get all that paperwork, they will put the project out for bid. Every two months they put ready projects up for bid. We’ve been on that list for a long time, but the documents have bumped us back along the way.”
“My guess to be optimistic is that construction could begin next year, but we can’t promise that. We’re hoping for a spring bid letting and then getting contracts and construction. But right now, it’s within reason to say that project could be done next year,” Varley said.
In his letter to the council, Varley said original estimates for annual operational costs were $50,000 with costs declining each year.
“A good portion of the cost was estimated for insurance, between $13,500 and $17,700. The city renegotiated the insurance requirements with Amtrak and was able to cut this cost substantially,” Varley wrote.
“Amtrak agreed to accept the insurance limits the city currently has in place and they also agreed to sell us the required type of insurance at a much-reduced rate than the quote from our carrier.”
He said the costs are now more in the range of $34,000 per year with declining costs annually and Amtrak’s rent is $4,800 per year creating a net cost of $29,000. Varley said that amount would fluctuate depending on a variety of factors such as snowfall, cost of equipment, and final arrangements.
“While it is difficult to quantify, there is certainly the possibility of this having a positive effect on our tourist economy,” he said.
He recommended that the annual cost of the depot be budgeted 40% from general fund, and 60% from the Hotel/Motel Tax Fund.