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City wins $1.2 million grant to restore Santa Fe depot
Forget about the city waiting for its ship to come in. Its train finally has arrived.
Lawrence officials have been awarded a federal transportation grant that will pay for 80 percent of the approximate $1.5 million cost to renovate the Santa Fe depot in East Lawrence.
The 1950s-era depot at Seventh and New Jersey streets would receive a major makeover with that level of funding. The building, currently owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, long has needed a new roof, new heating and cooling systems and other mechanical repairs. But with the grant money, improvements to parking and other improvements also are likely. The station already has received $1.5 million in upgrades to its boarding platform from Amtrak to help make the station ADA compliant.
Now city officials will need to restart discussions with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway about purchasing the depot. The railroad previously has expressed interest in selling the station to the city for a nominal amount. There have been conditions — such as the railway not wanting to sell the ground the station is on, and the need for the city to accept any environmental liability that exists on the property — that are likely to require more discussion. But city staff members have said indicated railway officials are still open to negotiation on the purchase terms.
The city also will have to come up with a little more than $300,000 in local money to meet the 20 percent matching requirement of the grant. That probably will be an unexpected expense in the 2014 budget, but it is a one-time expense, and the city previously has made it a priority to find money to take advantage of federal grants. What won’t be a one-time expense will be the city’s costs to maintain, heat and cool the building. Those expenses will have to be built into future budgets.
It also will be interesting to see if the city starts looking for additional uses for the building. Its main use will continue to be as a train depot, particularly for the Southwest Chief Amtrak train that comes through the city twice daily. The city, however, had been seeking other uses for the building, in part to improve the building’s chances of receiving grants. A plan to make the depot the central station for the city’s bus system was considered but ultimately rejected because of space concerns and objections from several neighbors.
Now that the building seems to have a much brighter future, I wouldn't be surprised if other groups start getting more serious about ways that they can use the building during the day. The Amtrak stops are late at night and early in the morning, leaving the station largely unused during normal business hours.
Based on the terms of the grant, the city needs to have a renovation project underway by September 2014. The grant the city received was a Transportation Enhancement grant, which is funded with federal dollars but is awarded by the Kansas Department of Transportation. I’m a bit surprised the TE grant program didn’t become wrapped up in the federal sequestration, but it appears it hasn’t.
The depot project was the largest TE grant project the city applied for in this funding cycle. But there were others, and there is good news on those fronts, as well. City officials have received word they’ve received Transportation Enhancement funding for two other projects:
• A grant of $218,838 to extend the paved Burroughs Creek Rail Trail from 23rd Street to 29th Street. The trail — which runs along the eastern edge of Haskell Indian Nations University — currently exists as a paved gravel path. The funding will allow the route to be paved, similar to the Burroughs Creek Rail Trail that is just north of 23rd Street. In case you are having a hard time picturing the area, it is just below the recently-replaced 23rd Street bridge. That project included a new parking area for people to access the trails. Like the depot grant, the city will need to come up with a 20 percent match in local funds — about $43,000 for this project.
• A grant of $55,000 to restore some old stone monuments at the entrance of the historic Breezedale neighborhood just south of 23rd and Massachusetts streets. The city will need to provide a 20 percent match, or about $11,000.
City commissioners will be asked to formally accept the grants at a future City Commission meeting.