City officials still need to approach with caution the plan to take ownership of the Amtrak depot in east Lawrence, but approval of more than $600,000 in federal stimulus funds to upgrade the 1950s building certainly makes the deal more attractive.
Last month, Lawrence city commissioners approved sending a letter asking Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway to give high priority to transferring ownership of the depot to the city. The hope of depot supporters is that having the building owned by the city would further their goal of attracting grants and other funding to preserve the building and make it a more attractive arrival and departure point for the city.
A major stumbling block in the plan, however, was that years of neglect had left the building in need of major updates and repairs, including about $400,000 worth of work to make it accessible to people with disabilities.
That obstacle was at least partially cleared just a day after the letter to BNSF was approved, when Amtrak announced that $600,000 in federal funds would be used to build a new concrete passenger platform and help the station meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act. About a week later, the city got more good news in the form of additional federal money to fund new depot signs and help with design and management costs for the platform and ADA work.
These are all positive signs that the federal government and Amtrak officials are willing to invest in the Lawrence depot and support local efforts to upgrade the building. That doesn’t mean, however, that the city shouldn’t be smart in negotiating a deal with BNSF. Tentative plans call for retaining crew quarters at the depot, and it therefore seems reasonable for BNSF to share in the estimated $60,000 a year it will cost to maintain the building.
Depot supporters are not the only ones hoping that Lawrence’s BNSF depot will become a player in an expanded and revitalized passenger rail system. There already is a push to connect the current Southwest Chief with a new route that would run south to Oklahoma City and Fort Worth. Rail travel isn’t likely to replace automobiles any time soon, but increased passenger rail service is a good energy-efficient option for the nation to pursue.
There still are some questions to be answered, but it’s obvious that the recent influx of federal funds to stabilize and improve the BNSF depot makes acquiring that building far more doable for the city.