BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A move that practically killed the relocation of the city’s Amtrak depot may just have been the thing that was needed to save it.
According to Fort Madison Mayor Brand Randolph, the Iowa Department of Transportation has found a fund that holds $400,000 that the city could gain access to offset about $380,000 of the city’s remaining costs for the project.
Support local journalism. Make your Pen City Current subscription donation here.
For about 12 years, even further when considering former Mayor John Wright proposed the idea of moving the depot from its current location in the Burlington Northern Santa Fe offices on 20th Street, to Riverview Park in the North Lee County Historical Society museum, city officials have been methodically working to move the depot. It was a priority of former Mayor Steve Ireland. Randolph has been carrying the project since Ireland’s death in March of 2012.
On Feb. 5, an informal polling of the Fort Madison city council showed that only one or two councilman would support continuing the depot project under current budget constraints. The city is staring at almost $350,000 in reduced sales tax revenues and its general fund is in dire conditions with a projected ending fund balance of under $4,000 with projected budget numbers.
It’s likely the council will approve a budget Tuesday that does not include the remaining costs of the depot project, which city staff had allocated out of the general fund and hotel/motel tax funds, unless reimbursements for the project are included.
Randolph said he’s had conversations with the DOT and Amtrak since Tuesday’s informal council polling and said they are both still committed to the project. He said during talks this week, DOT officials revealed a Rail Passenger Services Fund that had about $400,000 in it.
“Our conversations with them have indicated that we may have access to a good portion, if not all, of that money,” Randolph said. “The DOT has been championing this project all along. When they heard we might have to suspend the project, they got with their directors and had some internal talks about the possibility of using those funds.”
Randolph said there have been last minute conversations with Amtrak officials as well, and there may be additional support coming from the rail service to help mitigate ongoing annual costs.
He said Amtrak officials were meeting on Tuesday, the same day as the city’s evening council meeting, and he hoped to have solid information for the council at the meeting. Randolph has been trying to get Amtrak national board member, Tom Carper of Macomb, to a council meeting to address the council and city staff concerns. The ice storm on Feb. 5 prohibited Carper from attending that meeting.
Amtrak has been tedious in its approach to the project to date with regards to contract language. Randolph is on record as saying the project has taken longer than it should have.
Amtrak has so far committed $150,000 to the $1.3 million project and has agreed to pay a $400 per month rental fee for the new location.
The council’s objections to continuing with the project were the shortfall in the current budget and ongoing maintenance costs.
Randolph called the news a game changer for the project and said he believes the council may now vote in favor of moving on with the project.
Councilman Chris Greenwald, who was vocal at the budget hearing about the consequences of the city pulling funding of this and other tourist services, said this new information should make the deal palatable to the whole council.
“I believe with this new information, this will now pass with a unanimous vote,” Greenwald said.
Greenwald said he’s spoken with Amtrak officials as well.
“My words with Amtrak were that it was a big deal to them to see this project through because it was such an attractive stop, so I believe they will step up more,” Greenwald said.
Greenwald and Randolph are the longest serving elected officials since the depot project was proposed.
Randolph said he felt it was the responsibility of the two to try a resuscitate the project after what amounted to a “no confidence” vote on the project on Feb. 5.
Calls to rail officials with the Iowa Department of Transportation went unreturned Friday morning.
Currently, funding would come from $686,000 in 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 Quality of Life bond money.