Iowa passenger rail funding update

Last October the U.S. Department of Transportation approved $230 million for passenger rail between Iowa City and Chicago, going through the Quad Cities. However, the November election results placed both federal and state money for that project in doubt.

Follow me after the jump for recent news on prospects for funding the passenger rail link.  

Immediately after the November election, a Federal Railroad Administration stated definitively that money for the Chicago to Iowa City rail project had been awarded. Then in December, Congress failed to pass an omnibus bill on fiscal year 2011 spending. Last month, the House of Representatives approved a large package of current-year spending cuts, which rescinded all passenger rail funds that were not “obligated.” The Iowa City to Chicago funding had not yet been “obligated,” because the bureaucratic process for doing so typically takes at least nine months.

The Senate rejected the House package of spending cuts. Congress hasn’t yet reached agreement on spending for the rest of the current fiscal year. Quad-Cities Rail Coalition Executive Director Paul Rumler traveled to Washington on a lobbying mission this month and told the Quad-City Times, “I got the feeling we’d be OK, […] I understand the project continues to move forward, and I didn’t get a sense the Senate was targeting passenger-rail funding in their version of any deficit reduction bill.”

From the same article by Ed Tibbetts, check out the profile in courage from Senator Chuck Grassley:

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Thursday he would back restoring funding for passenger rail in the 2011 budget as long as it’s a “national approach” and not seen as an earmark for the Quad-Cities. […]

Grassley also cautioned that if rail funding were to become a litmus test of his seriousness over reducing the deficit, he likely wouldn’t support it. A vote last month on rural air service was widely seen that way, he said.

“How it is going to be viewed is kind of an issue as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Grassley was on record last fall supporting federal funding for the Chicago-Iowa City rail link. Now he wants to see how other people view the project.

Assuming the federal funding comes through, a passenger rail link from Chicago to the Quad Cities is assured, because the state of Illinois supports the project. Some state of Iowa funding will be needed to extend the line to Iowa City, however. Governor Terry Branstad didn’t include any passenger rail funding in his draft budget for the next two fiscal years. Iowa House Republicans tried to eliminate passenger rail funding already this year, but the Democratic-controlled state Senate removed that language from a broad spending-cut bill Branstad signed last month.

The Iowa communities that stand to benefit most from passenger rail may agree to pick up a large share of the future subsidy, expected to total about $3 million per year. In late February, local officials from Iowa City, Des Moines, Dubuque and the Quad Cities met with policy-makers representing Illinois, Amtrak and the Iowa Department of Transportation. Under this plan, Iowa City would need to contribute $300,000 to $400,000 annually. The city council has approved this idea in principle. Local backers hope Branstad will change his mind if the state is not on the hook for most of the future maintenance costs.

Spokesman Tim Albrecht said the Governor’s Office will need to see what happens before commenting on whether local financial support would make Branstad more agreeable to the project.

“He continues to review the rail project as a whole,” Albrecht said. “And certainly we’ll be interested in reviewing whatever action the City Council takes with regard to passenger rail in Iowa.”

Branstad is scheduled to discuss the new funding proposal with DOT personnel on March 21, according to Iowa City Manager Tom Markus. The governor said recently that “transportation is critically important to meeting the goal of creating 200,000 jobs over the next five years,” but his speeches indicate that funds for road-building will be his top priority. He has expressed doubt about whether people would use a new passenger rail line. This DOT fact sheet (pdf) lays out some of the reasons to support a passenger rail connection between Chicago and Iowa City. I’ll update this post later with DOT documents outlining more specific economic, safety and environmental benefits.

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