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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