BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – For over a dozen years, the city has been kicking around the idea of moving the Amtrak rail depot back to Riverview Park.
Former mayors John Wright and the late Steve Ireland and now Brad Randolph have championed the idea. Randolph has said he wants to see the project to completion to honor Ireland’s work on the project.
After many grants, drawings, proposals, etc, the city decided to move forward with the projects after getting a multitude of agreements in place in just about a year ago.
City Manager David Varley has put the issue up for discussion again at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Varley, in his discussion memo’s to the Fort Madison City Council and mayor, outlined where the city is at in the relocation of the depot, including a $1.3 million new passenger platform.
Varley told the council he’s looking for a discussion on the pros and cons of moving forward with the project.
On Nov. 6, the City Council approved three agreements that outlined the lease-owner relationship between the city, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and Amtrak. The agreements consisted of the city building and paying for the the platform with the assistance of grants.
Once completed, the platform BNSF would take over ownership and lease it back to Amtrak for its use. Amtrak would in turn lease the platform back to the city, which would be responsible for maintenance of the platform year-round.
Varley is projecting the depot to operate at a deficit each year with annual costs of $30,000 to $40,000 per year, but he’s said that’s an estimate because this would be a new venture for the city.
The agreements also include a $400 monthly rent check from Amtrak.
Varley said in December all the approved agreements with Amtrak were sent to Amtrak for signatures and the city has not seen them since. During that time BNSF has for additional changes to one of the agreements, and the city made that change, approved it, and sent it to Amtrak again.
In September, city officials has a conference call with Amtrak to get things finalized and to the Department of Transportation which would be responsible for bid letting on the construction.
“Amtrak had about five to six people participate in the conference call. Only about two of them were people we have been working with for the past several years and were part of the group when we came to a consensus on the three required agreements,” Varley wrote in his memo.
“Most of the people were new folks who are not familiar with this project and all the discussions we have had with Amtrak during the past few years.”
He said another attorney wants to review the documents again and any changes would need city council approval and a resubmittal to Amtrak.
Fort Madison Mayor Brad Randolph said he wanted the issue back on the agenda just to get everyone up to speed on the project and the what’s been happening over the past six months.
“I thought it was necesary to pull back and regroup everybody,” he said. “I know the documents passed in the fall, but on the last call there were three or four different Amtrak people in the group. now they’re putting a different spin on it and that’s extremely frustrating from that aspect of it. But with the new councilor on we need to have this conversation again about the issues that are beyond our control which is Amtrak.”
Randolph said the other part of the conversation is sales tax revenues are off for the city, referencing another agenda item for Tuesday to discuss contributions to the Lee County Economic Development Group.
“Another twist is that our sales tax revenue is down substantially. When you look at the numbers and you think although we do have it budgeted, is it something that the council and the community are all in on.”
He said recent conversations he’s had with an Amtrak boardmember who lives in Illinois, have been promising and he doesn’t see the delays as impacting the decision to move forward.
“I guess I don’t think so. We’re in the final throws. I think they have the engineering piece solved in terms of construction,” Randolph said. “What concerns me at this point is because it’s taken so long, rules and regulations have changed, the scope has changed and all of those things add up to higher cost to the project. that’s what bothers me the most. Now it’s morphed into this mammoth project in size and scope that require different aspects that we wouldn’t have encountered 10 years ago.”
Another issue working against the city would be Amtrak’s future plans with the Southwest Chief that runs through Fort Madison eastbound and westbound.
Varley wrote that BNSF is abandoning a portion of track in the southwest that would only be used then by Amtrak. With no safety or maintenance being done on that section, Amtrak may also have to abandon that line and move passengers by bus around that portion, or have a gap in service.
He said that change may result in a drop in riders on the Chief. Amtrak has already taken steps to reduce costs in this area with staffing.
“On top of all this, there has been some talk of Amtrak having to reduce their costs and there is speculation that could affect the stop in Fort Madison,” Varley wrote last week.
“The bottom line is that we don’t know how this will play out at the federal level and what impacts it could have for Fort Madison and the future Amtrak service here.”
Original costs of the platform were estimated at $785,000, but now the price tag with the additional professional services and revised construction costs have boosted the price at $1.29 million.
Funding would come from a $686,000 in remaining federal grants, a Southeast Iowa Regional Riverboat Commission grant of $100,000, a $150,000 contribution from Amtrak, and then $367,000 from the city’s hotel/motel funds, general funds and a Quality of Life bond money.
If the city were to dispose of the project, the city would have to repay $63,500 in federal grant money.