BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A director with the Iowa Department of Transportation confirmed Monday that the DOT is recommending a $400,000 expenditure from an Iowa Transportation Commission passenger rail fund to help offset costs associated with moving the Amtrak depot in Fort Madison.
Stuart Anderson, the director of the Planning, Programming, and Model Division of the Iowa Department of Transportation, said approval for the additional money would come from the Iowa Transportation Commission. He said Monday that although the additional depot funding isn’t guaranteed, the commission awarding the money has precedent for the move.
City officials, in an informal poll several weeks ago, dropped the depot relocation to Riverview Park in the North Lee County Historical museum due to tightening city funds.
But Mayor Brad Randolph, who at the meeting said maybe it was time to put the relocation on hold, and City Councilman Chris Greenwald started working the phones to see if additional funds could be found to keep the project moving forward.
One of those calls was to Anderson’s staff at the DOT.
“One of the funding sources that is available at the DOT is the Passenger Rail Service Revolving Fund and that fund is usually used as a funding source for studies such as a Chicago to Iowa City route,” Anderson said. “That’s been the primary use in the past. But eligible activity also includes activity to improve and support rail services at depots and stations.”
Anderson said the fund gets revenue from legislative appropriations and it doesn’t get money every year, but currently there is about $2 million in the fund.
A Feb. 2, 2018 fund status report showed $2.84 million, but that report doesn’t reflect any expenditures since that date.
“There have been several phases to this project and there has been federal transportation enhancement funding that has been awarded over time. The commission and the DOT have been partners in this because we believe Amtrak long distance service is important to the state,” he said.
“There have been financial challenges to the third and final phase and, because we’re so close to getting a sign off from the partners on this project, we went back and took another look at how we could help.”
Anderson said the funding has not been committed, but it’s a real possibility and the commission has awarded money from that fund for projects like this before.
“It’s tough for me to say because we haven’t had any conversations with the commission yet. But I guess what I can say is that in the past the commission has felt this type of project was important enough to award funds to these projects,” he said.
“Our plan right now, assuming the city moves forward considering this project, is to visit with the transportation commission when they have their workshop in March. That would be our first discussion with them at that point.”
Nothing would be formal until the commission reviews and acts on it. Anderson said the DOT is comfortable recommending up to $400,000 but if costs exceed the approximate $400,000 the city is short, the city may have to find that money.
“We don’t feel the Transportation Commission should cover 100% of the shortfall, but $400,000, based on numbers we’re aware of, should cover Fort Madison’s projected shortfall.”
He said the DOT hadn’t considered putting that money on the table until they realized that the project was at risk.
“The commission already has money in the project, so it’s not like the state wasn’t involved until now. When we became aware the project was at risk, we felt the need to go back and think outside the box a bit.”
Outside the poor financial condition of the city due to sales tax revenue decreases of close to $330,000 per year, was the concern that Amtrak wasn’t committed to keeping the Fort Madison stop open.
Anderson also said his staff has had conversations with Amtrak as well.
“Amtrak, as an organization, feels these long distance services are important. But at the end of the day, Amtrak is subject to appropriations. So I guess that would be the potential risk down the road. But every conversation we’ve had with them shows support,” Anderson said.
With the Fort Madison annual budget ready for approval at tonight’s City Council meeting, City Manager David Varley created an “Option B” budget that includes the projected additional revenues. The original budget however, has the depot project removed per the council’s direction at the last meeting.