June 12, 2023 - The North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) may be stepping in where the state of Texas faltered to make up a funding shortfall of $700 thousand for the popular daily Heartland Flyer service between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City to keep the train running.

The train is a partnered service of the Oklahoma and Texas Departments of Transportation and has been recovering from lower ridership and revenue from the pandemic, but has seen a strong uptick this year in passengers.

The Texas Department of Transportation had been contributing $2.4 million a year for the daily service over the last decade, but had not seen fit to ever adjust its share for inflation, labor, fuel increases and other costs, leading to the current crisis.

At last Thursday's NCTCOG Regional Transportation Council meeting, Director Michael Morris asked the Council to ratify an emergency funding authorization of  $700,000 in Regional Toll Revenue (RTR) funds for Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer Passenger Service from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

The Regional Transportation Council (RTC) Policy P20-02 can authorize the Transportation Director to take emergency funding actions up to approximately $5,000,000 due to necessity of time or consequence. The policy requires the emergency action to be placed on the next scheduled RTC meeting for ratification.

Texas’ share of funding for Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer passenger service from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City has a current funding shortfall of approximately $700,000. The State’s Supplemental Budget for the biennium ending August 31, 2023, did not include funding to address this shortfall, nor did the Texas Transportation Commission factor it in to their transportation budget that went to the legislature this past session.

The NCTCOG Transportation Director took emergency action to allocate $700,000 in RTR funding for the Heartland Flyer Passenger Service to avoid a service disruption. Council staff is meeting with Legislature officials to determine if other means are available, otherwise they are requesting the RTC to ratify the emergency action pursuant to RTC Policy P20-02. 

The Heartland Flyer is a popular service from Fort Worth with stops in Gainesville, Ardmore, Pauls Valley, Purcell, Norman (for the University of Oklahoma) and Oklahoma City. In pre-pandemic 2019 the Heartland Flyer boarded some 59,000 passengers at Fort Worth and 6,500 at Gainesville. Those number fell by almost half during Covid years 2020-2021 but have been rebounding. The train carried over 77,000 passengers in peak year last decade but numbers started to fall with no marketing effort on the Texas side. The train has been operating continuously since June 14, 1999. 

Periodic efforts had been underway to add a second round-trip to allow a full day for business or pleasure at cities served, but had not been on TxDOT's agenda.

A 2010 report for TxDOT by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, showed about $18 million was generated in defined economic benefits to cities and towns in Oklahoma and Texas from the train over a 12 month period. That includes lodging, meals, shopping, and entertainment on passenger trips. 

Photo credit: Oklahoma.gov