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Could another new passenger rail line be facing the ax?

An Amtrak passenger train heads back to Chicago with a heavy load of passengers. Photo by David Johnson/NARP

UPDATE (1/21/11): The Iowa House approved a measure to cut the funding. It will likely move to the Senate. If you live in Iowa, use this link to contact your Rep and Senator today to tell them you support this important line.

Potentially following in the footsteps of Wisconsin and Ohio, the Republicans in the state legislature are considering the possibility of killing Iowa’s portion of a planned higher speed passenger rail line from Chicago to Iowa City that would pass through the Quad Cities and the new Moline (Ill.) multimodal transportation hub funded by a TIGER grant.

Just after the last round of TIGER grants were announced, Iowa and Illinois received a joint $230 million grant from the Federal Railroad Administration — separately from the DOT’s high-speed rail program — to start new 110 mph service from Chicago to Iowa City; service that could eventually connect to Des Moines and Omaha and lay the groundwork for a true 220 mph high-speed system connecting Iowa to the hub (Chicago) of the midwest’s high speed network.

The feds have committed $230 million of the $310 million that the two states were asking for on this project, leaving the states to come up with the rest. Iowa had committed around $10 million toward the gap, but state Republicans are currently working on a budget that would cancel that funding and result in all sorts of dilemmas for the project. From the Des Moines Register:

The Republican-sponsored budget package would not provide any state money needed to establish and subsidize operations for the route, almost certainly forcing the Iowa Department of Transportation to return a federal grant of $81.4 million already awarded for the passenger train project.

Where the story on this project differs from similar recent stories in Wisconsin and Ohio of grants going back to Washington is that this project spans two states for an interstate rail line. Illinois will be able to keep their share of the grant, which is larger since the bulk of the route spans their state, but what will happen to the route? Will it simply stop at the border at the new Moline multimodal hub? What about the future of a Omaha/Des Moines/Iowa City connection to Chicago? Will it bypass important Iowa cities?

It’s imperative that the Iowa legislature and Governor Branstad follow through on their state’s commitment to build this valuable new service. Following the path of I-80 and I-88, it would hit all the major population centers of Iowa on it’s way to and from Chicago.

Could this be the new terminal of the line intended to travel into Iowa? Photo of the planned Moline (Illinois) multimodal center.

The silliest comment of the day comes from Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, who somehow manages to compare the benefits of a ditch being dug and filled in to an invaluable direct transportation connection to the economic engine of the Midwest.

“I can hire someone to dig a ditch, hire somebody to fill it in, and somebody would claim it creates a job, but does it really accomplish anything?” McKinley said. “I think that’s the question we have to ask ourselves about passenger rail to Chicago.”

The legislative session hasn’t started yet, so it may be premature to jump to any conclusions yet as the Iowa Chamber said, but as the recent cuts in Wisconsin and Ohio showed us, it’s important that these leaders hear from supporters early and often — long before a decision is made. And incoming Governor Terry Branstad has thus far pledged to keep the issue nonpartisan and examine the project fairly and honestly. He needs to be held to that promise.

Iowa residents: Call and write your state legislators and Governor Branstad and tell them that this project is crucially important to Iowa’s future. You can use this page to look up their phone numbers and emails.


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  2. Marc Brenman

    13 years ago

    Transportation for America should re-think its support for high speed rail. Repeated studies by reputable organizations have shown that the cost is excessive, will be much more than estimated, and will not be paid back at the farebox. Fares will be very high. There are significant environmental and social equity concerns with building high speed rail. The opportunity cost is huge. The money could be better spent on paying operating subsidies for public transit. Relatively few jobs will be produced. Mostly HSR will take ridership from regional jets. It will take relatively few cars off the road. Relatively little of the material used, including the rolling stock, will be made in the US. HSR will be essentially a long-distance commuter service for upper income commuters. If anyone wants more information on these and other problems with HSR, contact me. mbrenman001@comcast.net

  3. Dave

    13 years ago

    Why, highways don’t pay their share of costs either. Costs for HSR are no more excessive for highways; do a cost per mile constructed comparison. Fares high, you pay for the premium service
    that you receive and this helps the cost recovery – the fare box to which you are so concerned. What are your significant environmental and social equity concerns with building high speed rail? There will not be many. At the future TRB -Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting a workshop on the benefits from High Speed Rail Service will be presented. If it is so bad why are all the other nations building HSR systems? Operating subsidies for public transit could be reduced when more people begin to use it on a regular basis. How many perminate jobs does a highway produce? (example: clerks at a gas station making minimum wage). Why do we want to keep wasting resources (fuel, airport space etc.) on regional air services? One less car on the road means you get to your destination a little faster, is that not a benefit? Think of all the things you could do safely while traveling on HSR? There are factories already in the US, and plans to build all significant components and assembly of HSR equipment in the states.

    Please send more information on your faulted beliefs and your other perceived problems with HSR.


  4. Ron

    13 years ago

    This debate about HSR is like passengers on a luxury ocean liner adrift at sea, taking on water and having no radio communication arguing over launching lifeboats. First, highways are not free, we spend close to $200 billion/year, only 51% of which is covered by user fees. Second, the ASCE assessment of the condition of the highway infrastructure says that one of every four bridges in the U.S. is either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete and it will cost $2.2 trillion to bring America’s infrastructure up to acceptable standards over the next 5 years. Third, the US Energy Information Agency has reported that world oil production reached a plateau in 2006 and we have been using oil reserves to meet continued demand despite increasing cost. They project that production will soon begin to drop at 2%/year while demand increases 1%/year. Transportation currently uses more than 60% of the US demand for oil and the US uses roughly 25% of the global production.
    You do the math. Our current transportation system is sinking and we are arguing about building more energy-efficient options. I say lets clean the gene pool by letting the nay sayers stay on board the sinking ship and start laying a foundation for a transportation system that will keep us above water

  5. Lionel Gambill

    13 years ago

    Hey! Send all those dollars to California, especially to North Coast Railroad Authority. They know how to make it all work for the good of everyone.

    As in many other areas, the Chinese are beating the pants off us. They are putting more and more money [like 850 billion dollars (not Yuan)]. into making their world-class passenger rail system even better, while the highway lobby does its best to keep America stuck in its third-world transportation fiasco.

    Lionel Gambill

  6. Henry Servin

    13 years ago

    Indeed if other states don’t see the investment value in HSR, please send it to California. We can certainly put it to good use.
    Leading the trend.

  7. anon

    13 years ago

    The problems isn’t with HSR, it’s that this isn’t HSR in any meaningful sense. Is there potential for HSR in the US? Yes, if it means trains going at least 100 mph. But very few people are going to be willing to take a train that travels 75 mph (at best), with frequent stops , when you can hop on a plane and the fares are not that much different.