Lawrence Amtrak passengers deserve better than what they are getting today: a 1950s-era depot at Seventh and New Jersey streets that comes with a leaky roof, outdated bathrooms and sparse accommodations.
It is a poor welcome sign to our community.
If deciding that Amtrak passengers and Lawrence’s image deserved better was the only decision facing the Lawrence City Commission, this issue would be easy.
In the coming weeks and months, Lawrence city commissioners likely will be lobbied by well-intentioned citizens to take over ownership of the depot and begin a restoration project. The project involves a significant leap of faith on the community’s part. It is too large a leap to take in these economic times.
The first phase of renovations is estimated to cost $600,000. The city has been seeking grant money for the project — without much success. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is open to transferring ownership of the depot to the city. This is not surprising since the railroad has shown little interest in maintaining the building.
But the city, rightly so, has been reluctant to take over ownership without knowing how it would pay for the initial $600,000 in repairs. Simply taking over ownership and waiting until money can be raised is not a feasible option since many of the repairs are required to bring the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The railroad may be able to get away with not meeting ADA standards. The city of Lawrence will not.
Several community members now are set to argue that the reason the city has not received grant money for this project is because the city doesn’t own the building. That probably is a significant factor. These community members say if the city were to take over ownership, it would get the needed grant money for the restoration.
That may be true, but it’s certainly not guaranteed. The city should not make a $600,000 gamble in today’s financial environment.
A better course would be for community members to start their own private fundraising campaign, with the hope that the depot still will be available for ownership transfer when their fundraising is complete. That seems like a more reasonable risk to take.
Or, perhaps, the city ought to shift its approach to the railroad. It might be time to point to several of the city’s property maintenance codes that apply to buildings that are open to the public. A letter from the mayor to the federal officials that oversee ADA compliance issues also might be warranted.
None of these options likely will appeal to the depot’s fans. Instead, they will continue to push for the city to take a large leap of faith.
We applaud those citizens for their commitment, but commissioners’ responsibility to Lawrence taxpayers should make them think twice before gambling on future funding for this project.