Iowa Transportation Commission members back passenger rail project

The Iowa legislature barely kept hope alive for future funding to support a passenger rail link connecting Iowa City to Chicago, via the Quad Cities. However, most Iowa Transportation Commission members back the Amtrak project and would consider moving funds from other areas to make it happen.

Last October, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced $230 million in funding for the Chicago to Iowa City rail project. Illinois has committed state matching funds, so a link to the Quad Cities will be built. However, the extension to Iowa City will require some state funding to match Iowa's share of the federal grant. Governor Terry Branstad didn't include any passenger rail funding in his draft budget and didn't encourage Iowa House Republicans to support the effort during budget negotiations that dragged on for months. However, Iowa Senate Democrats fought to keep the project alive. The passenger rail allocation was one of the last contentious issues holding up approval of an infrastructure budget bill in late June. The final compromise reduced passenger rail funds from the fiscal 2012 budget but left the door open to meeting the terms of the federal grant in fiscal year 2013. Iowa would need to allocate $10 million total for building the passenger rail line, plus an estimated $3 million in annual operating subsidies. Branstad and Republicans in the state legislature particularly object to that operating support. The governor has said, "I don't think we should be in the business of subsidizing passenger train service."

A majority of Iowa Transportation Commission members disagree, according to that commission's chair Amy Reasner. She discussed the rail project with David DeWitte of the Cedar Rapids Gazette:

Reasner said most commission members are supportive of the proposed extension of Amtrak rail service to Davenport and Iowa City from Chicago.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has put the brakes on the projects because of concerns it will cost the state ongoing subsidies.

Reasner said the commission has indicated to the governor that it is willing to look at reallocating funds from existing programs to help support the service.

Opponents of rail passenger service have tended to focus their objections on subsidies, Reasner said, but the government already subsidizes other forms of transportation.

Passenger rail supporters need to do a better job explaining that roads don't pay for themselves either. On the contrary, roads require huge government subsidies beyond the gas tax, which is not really a road "user fee." The operating subsidy for the passenger rail link is small by comparison. Critics argue that few Iowans outside the Quad Cities or Cedar Rapids/Iowa City corridor would benefit from an Amtrak link to Chicago. But if that line is built, rail could later be extended through Des Moines to Omaha/Council Bluffs. That's why many Chamber of Commerce groups and the Greater Des Moines Partnership strongly support the Amtrak project.

Branstad's pick to lead the Iowa Department of Transportation, Paul Trombino, spoke favorably about passenger rail in his previous work in Wisconsin but has said little about the proposed rail link to Iowa City.

In March, Branstad created a new advisory body called the Transportation 2020 Commission to evaluate Iowa's transportation funding needs during the coming decade. The road system is likely to be the main focus of that discussion, and it's not clear whether 2020 commission appointees support more funding for passenger rail. Branstad has said his new 2020 commission won't "usurp the [Iowa] transportation commission's final authority over transportation decisions."

Speaking of government subsidies for roads, Reasner told DeWitte she is worried that the debt ceiling bill Congress approved this week will lead to cuts in federal transportation funding.

She said most Americans aren't aware that Congress has subsidized highways and bridges beyond the funds collected in the Federal Highway Trust fund through the motor fuel tax, and that funding will almost certainly be reduced to cut the deficit.

Iowa's members of Congress have indicated that the state's federal highway funding could be reduced 25 to 30 percent in order to balance outflows with revenues, Reasner said. [...]

The state has a backlog of 135 unfunded highway and bridge projects with needs totaling $5 billion, Reasner said. The projects most likely to be cut if federal funds are reduced will be new construction requested for economic development reasons or to expand capacity strained by growing traffic, she said.

The Highway 100 extension project that has been hotly pursued by local officials in Linn County is among those that could be in jeopardy unless additional transportation funding is approved or local government comes up with more matching funds, Reasner said when asked about it.

Environmental advocates have long opposed the Highway 100 project because of its potential impact on the Rock Island county and state preserves. In June, the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter and two private citizens filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block construction, citing an allegedly flawed environmental impact statement.

Earlier this year, the Iowa Transportation Commission delayed action on several major road projects, anticipating a reduction in federal funding after Congress approves a the next big highway bill. The affected projects include the Highway 100 extension, widening U.S. Highway 20 in western Iowa, and widening U.S. Highway 30 in eastern Iowa.

Even if federal transportation funding remained at current levels, it would be wise for Iowa to shift some of its spending from new road construction into maintenance and repair projects. A recent report by Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense found that Iowa is failing to keep up with the state's road and bridge maintenance needs.

Login or Join to comment and post.