SD Transportation Secretary wary of plans to bring Amtrak service to the state (Audio)

April 18, 2024

John Hult, SD Searchlight

PIERRE, S.D.–The head of the South Dakota Department of Transportation dismissed the possibility of passenger rail in the state during a meeting of the Railroad Authority Board on Wednesday.

Secretary Joel Jundt addressed the topic during the board’s first meeting since the Federal Railroad Administration presented a map of possible passenger rail futures that, for the first time, presented a possible route through South Dakota.

South Dakota is the only state in the contiguous United States to have never had service from Amtrak, the government-subsidized rail corporation that consolidated the majority of passenger rail lines in the 1970s.

The Federal Railroad Administration is in the midst of a multi-year Long Distance Rail Service Study. Maps showing possible routes through Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City appeared in February.

Kellie Beck, the director of finance and management for the state DOT, told the railroad board that she’d participated in two of the meetings for that federal study on behalf of the state.

She told the board of the recently released maps, but also noted that Jundt had been part of a previous passenger rail study in 2021 that concluded passenger rail wouldn’t be viable in South Dakota for many years.

She also reminded the board that the state’s status as one of three without passenger rail means that it gets “Special Transportation Circumstance” grants every year from the federal government, which the state has used for cargo rail and other projects.

“As you guys are aware, we’ve funded a lot of projects and have done a lot of short-line projects to promote and enhance economic development,” Beck said. “In ’22, and ’23, we were allocated close to $27 million each year.”

Jundt chimed in at that point to offer his take on the study’s South Dakota maps from the DOT’s perspective. A passenger rail project would be expensive — “over a billion dollars and more than that,” Jundt said — and he doesn’t see South Dakota’s low population “rising to the top from a high priority standpoint” in the months and years ahead. Costs for some other long passenger rail projects have run into the tens of billions.

“From a concept standpoint, I think it would be a great thing to have passenger rail in South Dakota for tourism and everything else,” Jundt said. “But I think once they truly get into understanding the dynamics and the cost to do this, it might not look as favorable as just the concept.”