Project update: Passenger rail
THE PROJECT: A passenger rail line from Chicago to Omaha that would pass through Des Moines
Friday, March 22, 2013 7:00 AM
The Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) is slated to release a study in the first half of this year on the environmental impact and the feasibility of a proposed passenger rail line from Chicago to Omaha. The study is designed to help lawmakers decide whether to put up matching money needed to extend the line through Iowa. The most immediate decision for the state is whether to match federal funding for the line to get to Iowa City. Currently, Illinois is preparing to build the line from Chicago to Moline. Business advocates in Des Moines are pushing for state funding to get the line to Iowa City, which would be the next step to getting the line to Des Moines. The Greater Des Moines Partnership and Downtown Community Alliance are advocates for it. Partnership CEO Jay Byers said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the state would get the proposed line.
Iowa money stalls:
The big obstacle is state funding. Illinois has it. Iowa doesn’t. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in 2010 approved $230 million for Iowa and Illinois to build the route from Chicago to Iowa City. Iowa has yet to provide a $20 million match to implement the line. Illinois is moving forward with building the line to the Quad Cities. In 2010, then-Gov. Chet Culver said the line would set a “new national standard for reliable, cost-effective, fuel-efficient rail service.” But the political environment changed when Republican Terry Branstad defeated Culver later that year. The state decided not to provide a funding match in the 2011 legislative session. Two years later, the FRA funding is still on the table, with no definitive timeline on how long the state has to match it. Branstad said he is opposed to an ongoing state rail subsidy, and is still reviewing the project.
Details of the service:
A draft of the Iowa DOT’s study anticipates initial service of two round trips a day at a 79 mph maximum speed. The service would draw between 325,000 and 400,000 passengers per year between Chicago and Omaha. Advocates eventually would like to see 110 mph service that would provide more daily trips and serve more than 1 million passengers a year, according to the DOT’s study. Federal regulations require new modifications of most existing rail corridors to accommodate trains faster than 110 mph, which are costly enough that it would likely require new tracks to be built. That’s a step not identified in the DOT’s plan. The line’s Des Moines station could be the old train depot building at 100 Fourth St., which would put it next to the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority hub downtown, creating an unofficial downtown transit campus. The depot building is owned by Connie Wimer, chairman of Business Publications Corporation Inc., which publishes the Business Record. Wimer said she supports having the line come through the city, but selling the building would require future discussion with the city.
What advocates say:
For business reasons, money invested in passenger rail can generate economic development revenue, if done right.
Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, spoke to the benefits that Amtrak’s Downeaster line has provided between Boston and Portland, Maine, in a Jan. 31 presentation in Des Moines. Smaller cities along the route have seen significant economic growth, she said. In one three-town area, the service has generated $250 million in economic development projects.
Jeff Fruin, assistant city manager in Iowa City, was an assistant city manager in Normal, Ill., when that city decided to put more resources into its existing passenger rail service in the early 2000s. Fruin touted the economic development benefits but warned that a rail line through the city would only generate development if it was done right.
What opponents say:
State Representative Josh Byrnes, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, questions whether service would be a good use of federal money. He also questions whether the line would take people away from Iowa to Chicago, versus bringing people into the state. Byrnes said he has not heard talk in the House of funding the rail system.
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