The number of people using Lawrence’s Amtrak depot is on the rise, according to new numbers.
But whether the prospect of the city buying the east Lawrence building is headed in the same direction is still an open question.
Members of a grassroots group who are urging city leaders to take over ownership of the Santa Fe Depot at Seventh and New Jersey streets are pointing to new numbers that show Amtrak ridership at the station soared well above the national average during the past 12 months.
“Word is getting out that Lawrence’s depot is no longer considered the ‘Stephen King station,’” said Carey Maynard-Moody, a leader of the Depot Redux group. “Now that we have caretakers for the depot, it is not a scary place.”
Ridership at the Lawrence depot increased by 26 percent during fiscal year 2011, which ended in September, according to numbers from Amtrak. The Lawrence increase was well above the 5.1 percent increase in overall Amtrak ridership nationwide. Lawrence’s numbers also outpaced the ridership gains made on the Southwest Chief, the lone Amtrak route that travels through Lawrence. The Southwest Chief posted a ridership gain of 3.7 percent.
Overall, ridership at the Lawrence station stood at 6,410. That’s up about 70 percent from the 3,700 riders who used the depot in fiscal year 2007.
Maynard-Moody attributes the increase, in part, to better upkeep at the station and her group’s efforts to increase the visibility of the station. At the urging of Depot Redux, Amtrak has hired two caretakers for the station who open and close the depot 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after departure of the two trains that stop at the depot. The Depot Redux group uses volunteers to handle the duties on the weekends. Before the new arrangement, the unstaffed depot was left unlocked for long periods each night.
“It had kind of become the homeless hotel,” Maynard-Moody said. “You can ask any Amtrak conductor, and they would tell you that they would shoo people out of there each night.”
But questions still remain about what the long-term future holds for the depot. Burlington Northern Santa Fe continues to own the depot, and city officials are still struggling with whether to strike a deal with the railroad to take over ownership of the building.
As previously reported, Amtrak also has made an offer to the city to pay for about $130,000 worth of interior improvements related to the Americans with Disabilities Act — such as bathrooms, entrances and other renovations — if the city takes over ownership of the building.
The city, however, hasn’t yet struck a deal with Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and hasn’t formally responded to the Amtrak offer that is now about four months old.
Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard, though, said the city is continuing to work on the project. But she said two broad issues continue to create questions: the terms that the city would assume ownership from the railway and the amount of money the city would need to spend on station improvements once it owns the building.
Originally, the city had told BNSF that it wanted a transfer to be done on a contingency basis. The city did not want to assume ownership of the building until it had a received a grant to undertake station improvements.
Stoddard said the railroad has expressed concern with that type of arrangement.
That leaves the City Commission with a decision on whether it is comfortable taking ownership of the building, given that a Lawrence architect hired by the city has identified about $400,000 worth of improvements that are needed to the roof, the heating and cooling systems and other high priority items.
But commissioners previously had expressed the most concern about the necessary ADA improvements, because those improvements likely could not be delayed by the city.
Stoddard said she is preparing a memo to present to city commissioners in November.
“We’re hoping to get some information from the commission that will allow us to communicate our position to BNSF and Amtrak,” Stoddard said.