BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – If a vote were taken at Tuesday’s meeting, the Fort Madison City Council may have wiped their hands clean of moving the Amtrak Depot back to Riverview Park.
Mayor Brad Randolph asked that the issue be put back on the council agenda for Tuesday’s regular meeting to take another look at where the city is in regard to relocating the depot.
“I felt it important to kind of take a step back for me, because I’ve been the one spear-heading this project since 2012, to make sure the council and the community were still on board with continuing the project in light of new budget concerns and some of the issues we have now encountered through circumstances beyond our control with Amtrak,” Randolph said.
He said he’s been working to procure additional funding through lawmakers who are empathetic to the city’s concerns, but are unable to provide any additional funding. He said he’s also gone to Burlington Northern to contribute to the project. Randolph said he thought there was value in the fact that the city would be taking over the passenger aspect and they advised him that they were not ready to engage in any further help other than what they have agreed to, which is about $45,000 in in-kind support.
Randolph said he’s also spoken with former Macomb mayor Tom Carper, a member of the national Amtrak board, who said there is a 550-mile stretch of track through New Mexico that doesn’t have positive track controls. Burlington Northern is no longer using that stretch of track and have received a waiver from the federal government to not have those safety mechanisms on that stretch.
“Amtrak does not want to run their trains on a portion of the track that is not covered by PTCs, so they have talked about options with the Southwest Chief using buses to cover that 550-mile stretch, which they feel would just add to the decrease ridership.”
He said Amtrak has recieved the necessary waivers and have an alternative in place to run on that track next year so he said the Chief is safe for next year. He also said Amtrak is taking a big look at all of their routes and especially the long-haul routes. One option is shortening the Chief run from Kansas City to Chicago. The Chief is the Amtrak train that runs east and west through Fort Madison.
But he said Carper and another Amtrak official have assured him that no conversations have taken place about eliminating a stop in Fort Madison.
Councilmen Bob Morawitz, Matt Mohrfeld, Mark Lair and Chad Cangas all expressed reservations about continuing with the project.
Cangas said he’s uncomfortable with Amtrak’s lack of a commitment to keep Fort Madison a viable stop. Mohrfeld said it was time the city set a hard deadline on the project to either move forward or get out of it.
“So Amtrak has gotten a one year waiver for a track that doesn’t have all the safety regulations it would normally require and then, after that, it’s entirely feasible that the government would pull that waiver and they wouldn’t be able to run on it anyway,” Cangas said.
If the city pulled the plug on the project, Varley said the city would have to pay back about $63,500 in grant money. The city has about $370,000 in additional potential costs if the depot project is finally approved. The additional funds have been budgeted and are being carried year to year so money is there to take care of the city’s costs.
The project would move the depot, including ticketing operations and a passenger platform, to the historic depot in Riverview Park.
Councilman Chris Greenwald said he was against the project at the beginning, but they are too far in now to stop and turn around. He challenged the councilman who said there are too many uncertainties with Amtrak’s future plans by saying if the council shuttered the project they would know that people wouldn’t be stopping.
“I believe if we shut this thing down, we’ve bought the “Closed” sign and put up the first couple letters. I don’t have a whole lot of good solid guarantees to sell you on this, but I really want to see this through,” he said.
Mark Lair said the city shouldn’t be in the depot business, and Greenwald said the city shouldn’t also be involved in the Old Fort business.
“I agree,” Lair said. “But I still don’t think we should be in the depot business. Why should we be maintaining their depot, cleaning their depot, manning their depot to an extent at $40,000 per year?”
After about an hour-long conversation, the council decided to forge ahead because no action was taken. Randolph said he and City Manager David Varley would continue to push Amtrak to get the required information back so they can move forward and would update the council at upcoming meetings.
Right now, Amtrak has approved agreements from the Council and those documents need signed and forwarded to Iowa Department of Transportation to get in the bid-letting hopper for the state. The city approved the agreements in December and then had to reapprove them with some language that was changed. That was several months ago and the city hasn’t received the signed agreements.
Varley said additional real estate attorneys have gotten involved and are reviewing the documents again. Varley said he’s expecting those documents any day.