Branstad not sold on new passenger rail for Iowa

Governor-elect Terry Branstad expressed concern today about the cost of new passenger rail links between Chicago and cities in Iowa.

“Well, I want to analyze the situation,” Branstad said. “I’m very concerned about the federal debt.” Public transportation advocates say if states like Ohio and Wisconsin reject high speed rail, it could stymie projects all across the Midwest. Branstad says he doesn’t want to rush to judgment.

“I want to carefully review and analyze the circumstances and I understand there are concerns about the huge cost of this and how cost effective it is and how much it would really be utilized,” Branstad said.

In late October, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced $230 million in funding for a new Amtrak route connecting Iowa City to Chicago via the Quad Cities. Senator Chuck Grassley has spoken approvingly about the project. A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration told me last week, “The money has been awarded.” One question mark is whether the route could be completed if the Iowa legislature declines to fund our state’s share of the costs in future years:

The project will cost $310 million, and Iowa and Illinois will pay pro-rated shares of costs not covered by the federal government. Iowa lawmakers have already appropriated $10 million and need to come up with another $10 million, said Tamara Nicholson, director of the Iowa DOT’s rail office. The state would also pay an estimated $3 million annually in operating subsidies. […]

Train supporters hope the route will someday be extended to Des Moines and Omaha. Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie has endorsed the idea and Tom Kane, executive director of the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning organization, says passenger trains are important to the future of Des Moines and the national transportation system.

“We know that much of the air traffic out of Chicago is for trips of less than 500 miles, so why are we flying? There will also be future congestion on the interstate highway system, particularly from freight and trucks. This will give our transportation consumers a choice,” Kane said.

Kane’s point is valid, but Republican lawmakers would probably rather widen interstate highways, even if that proved more costly than adding rail capacity.

The best hope of bringing Branstad around is a lobbying effort by business interests. Quite a few corporations and business groups support the Quad Cities Passenger Rail Coalition. The Greater Des Moines Partnership and central Iowa Young Professionals Connection back extending passenger rail across Iowa. This year’s chairman of the Greater Des Moines Partnership is Doug Reichardt, who is close to Branstad and was rumored to be on his short list for running mates last year. One of the partnership’s past presidents, Teresa Wahlert, “played a lead role in Branstad’s economic development agenda” during this year’s campaign.

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Iowa-Chicago rail funding secure despite election

The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives will change transportation policy priorities, but should not affect recently announced funding for a Chicago to Iowa City passenger rail link. KCCI-TV questioned this week, “Will Election Changes Kill Iowa-Chicago Train Funding?”

Florida Rep. John Mica, the comittee’s ranking GOP member, told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday that he believes high-speed trains are a good idea, but he doesn’t agree with the projects selected by the Transportation Department for funding.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was in Iowa just last week, where he joined local leaders to celebrate $230 million in federal money to start work on a passenger rail line. Service on the new GreenLine is expected to begin in 2015 and take passengers from Chicago’s Union Station to the Quad Cities to Iowa City.

I contacted the Federal Railroad Administration today to find out whether there is any way for Congress to reverse the passenger rail funding decisions. FRA spokesman Rob Kulat said, “You’d have to ask Chairman Mica” how he thinks he can do that, adding, “The money has been awarded.” When I asked about a possible review process, Kulat repeated, “The money has been awarded.”

The Wall Street Journal reported on November 3 that the newly elected Republican governors of Ohio and Wisconsin want to cancel passenger rail projects in their states. The same article said Iowa Governor-elect Terry Branstad “has supported expanding rail service between Chicago and cities in Iowa.” However, in late October Branstad’s campaign manager “declined to comment” when the Des Moines Register asked “if Branstad would support the use of state money to establish Chicago-to-Iowa City passenger service.”

Some Republicans claimed the passenger rail grant was a political ploy to help endangered Democrats in Iowa and the Quad Cities. If so, it didn’t work. Representative Phil Hare lost his re-election bid in Illinois’ 17th Congressional district, including Rock Island and Moline. Representative Bruce Braley was re-elected narrowly but trailed his Republican opponent in Scott County, containing Davenport and Bettendorf. Governor Chet Culver didn’t carry Scott County either.

It’s too bad the outgoing Congress didn’t approve a comprehensive transportation funding bill. Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar had a strong vision for balancing priorities and increasing investments in passenger rail and public transit. The Republicans who will write the new highway bill have little interest in rail or the administration’s efforts to make roads more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly. At a Congressional hearing this March, Iowa’s own Tom Latham asserted that every bicyclist is one fewer person paying into the transportation trust fund.

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Chicago-Iowa City passenger rail funding approved

The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded $230 million in federal funding today for a new Amtrak route connecting Chicago and Iowa City, Senators Tom Harkin and Dick Durbin announced. The route will go through the Quad Cities. From a statement released by Harkin’s office:

The project – scheduled for completion in 2015 – will create 588 jobs per year for the first four years of design and construction.  Once initiated, the new service is expected to increase business activity at $25 million per year. […]

The new Chicago – Quad Cities – Iowa City route will provide two daily round-trips and carry trains traveling at speeds up to 79 miles per hour (mph) with an expected trip time of less than 5 hours.  The long-term vision for the line includes expanding the frequency of trains to offer more than two daily round-trip trains; extending the route; and making additional infrastructure investments to increase speeds from 79 mph to 90 mph, or even 110 mph.

Today’s news is a pleasant surprise. Although Governor Chet Culver and several members of Congress strongly advocated for expanding passenger rail in Iowa, the U.S. Department of Transportation did not fund an earlier grant request supporting Amtrak routes between Chicago and Iowa City and Chicago and Dubuque.

A 2008 Amtrak feasibility study on passenger rail from Iowa City to the Quad Cities estimated annual ridership on the route at “about 187,000 passengers, based on two daily round-trips and if improvements are made allowing maximum speeds of 79 mph.” Typical passenger trains reach maximum speeds of 79 mph; anything faster than 110 mph is considered “high-speed rail.”

More details on today’s announced funding are in the full statement from Harkin’s office, which I’ve posted after the jump. The Quad-City Rail Coalition website has additional background information on the proposed route. Central Iowa business and political leaders hope a Chicago-Iowa City passenger rail link could eventually be extended through Des Moines to the Council Bluffs-Omaha metro area.

UPDATE: I’ve added a press release from the governor’s office with more details. It states that first-year ridership on the route between Iowa City and Chicago is projected at 246,800.

TUESDAY UPDATE: Senator Chuck Grassley also expressed support for this passenger rail link: “You’re finding a situation where, connected with the problems of Homeland Security, the problems of terrorists on airplanes, the fact that airlines are having trouble providing the service they used to provide, alternative service like rail service is something that, at least on a regional basis, is going to pay off.”

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Feds give no money for passenger rail to Iowa City

The Des Moines Register’s William Petroski reports today that the Obama administration declined requests for federal money to support Amtrak routes between Chicago and Iowa City and between Chicago and Dubuque.

A list of grants issued Wednesday night by the White House shows that Iowa will receive only $18 million in federal railroad passenger money. This includes $1 million to study a proposed passenger train that would run daily between Chicago and Omaha, including stops in the Quad Cities, Iowa City and Des Moines.

The remaining $17 million will be used to install four remote- controlled powered crossovers on the BNSF Railway tracks in the Ottumwa area. This will reduce travel times and improve on-time performance on Amtrak’s existing California Zephyr train that runs across southern Iowa, federal officials said.

Iowa and Illinois officials had sought $256 million in federal funds for the Chicago to Iowa City route, which would go through the Quad Cities, and $139 million for the Chicago to Dubuque route.

Dubuque and the Quad Cities may get passenger rail despite today’s disappointing news:

Even without the federal money, Illinois officials expect to begin Amtrak service between Chicago and Dubuque and Chicago and the Quad Cities, possibly within two years, officials said. That’s because Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a $31 billion capital construction package last year to ensure the rail expansion.

But the federal grants would have bolstered both projects and would have assured the extension of the train service to Iowa City, and possibly eventually to Des Moines, officials said.

A feasibility study from 2008 showed promising numbers for an Amtrak route connecting Iowa City to the Quad Cities. A huge number of University of Iowa students are from the Chicago area, and many people living in that region of Iowa travel to Chicago for business or entertainment.

In comments to the Des Moines Reigster, Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba predicted yesterday that the Chicago to Iowa City train would receive some federal funding by 2013, even if the current grant request was denied. I hope he turns out to be right.

UPDATE: Governor Chet Culver’s response to this news is after the jump.

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A few links on passenger rail and transportation policy

Governor Chet Culver rode a train from Iowa City to Chicago Sunday, promoting passenger rail links en route to the Midwest High Speed Rail Summit, which starts Monday.  

After the jump I’ve posted some news relating to passenger rail in Iowa and nationwide, including a follow-up on Congressman Tom Latham’s attempt to transfer funds from high-speed rail to the highway fund.

UPDATE: From the governor’s office on July 27:

Governor Chet Culver and Governor Pat Quinn today signed a Memorandum of Understanding to coordinate efforts by Iowa and Illinois to establish passenger rail service from Chicago to Dubuque and from Chicago to the Quad Cities and Iowa City.

In addition, Governor Culver joined leaders from eight states who signed a Memorandum of Understanding in support of regional high-speed rail. That agreement includes, as a key goal, extending passenger service from Iowa City to Des Moines and on to Omaha. […]

Following the signing of the eight-state high-speed rail agreement, Iowa and Illinois officials signed a separate agreement that spells out action to be taken by the transportation departments in both states.

Click here and scroll down to find links to the rail agreements signed in Chicago on July 27.

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