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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