Iowa Department of Transportation officials have asked the Federal Railroad Administration to separate the $230 million federal grant intended to support passenger rail service from Chicago to Iowa City. Separating the funds would allow the Illinois Department of Transportation to move ahead with the Chicago to Moline (Quad Cities) portion of the rail line. Meanwhile, the Iowa DOT will study a potential passenger rail link all the way to Omaha, Nebraska.
During this year's legislative session, Republican lawmakers balked at allocating matching funds to support the Chicago to Iowa City rail project. Some Republicans objected to the principle of subsidizing passenger rail service, period. Since the plan didn't extend west of Iowa City and involved maximum train speeds of 79 miles per hour, the potential benefits were limited to a relatively small percentage of Iowans.
Funding for passenger rail was one of the last budget disagreements House Republicans and Senate Democrats resolved before the session ended. The final deal left state matching funds for the project hanging by a thread.
Iowa DOT officials are now looking at a plan that would support higher-speed trains and serve a larger population. Funding for a $2 million study has already been allocated by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Iowa legislature. Stuart Anderson, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation's planning, programming, and modal division, told Steve Gravelle more:
The study "would provide that broader regional perspective with a lot more public input," said Anderson.
The study would also consider the improvements needed to allow trains to run up to 90 mph rather than the 79-mph limit planned for the Chicago-Iowa City route.
"That would really improve the travel times, and we feel would have the chance to really increase the ridership numbers," Anderson said.
Even if rail backers can overcome legislative Republicans' opposition to the project, actual work on the Moline-Iowa City leg will be on hold until the plan is finished.
"That was originally envisioned for two years, but we're hoping to work with the FRA to see if we can move that along," Anderson said.
Once the trans-Iowa study is finished, the entire route to Omaha would be eligible for federal aid, Anderson said.
Passenger rail service across the state might be an easier sell to skeptical Republicans, including Governor Terry Branstad. Business groups in the Des Moines area strongly support passenger rail service to Chicago, and a line running to Omaha would benefit Iowans living near Council Bluffs as well as those around the Des Moines metro. Technically, the project Anderson described would not be "high-speed rail," which involves trains running at maximum speeds of 110 mph. Still, a train running at 90 mph could get someone from Omaha to Chicago a lot faster than most people would get there by car.
Whether the federal DOT would support a Chicago to Omaha rail line is another question. If a Republican wins the 2012 election, the next administration will probably be much less supportive of passenger rail than the current one. Even if President Barack Obama is re-elected, his embrace of austerity politics means funding for non-vehicular transportation may be cut significantly over the next several years.
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P.S. Here's an excerpt from Iowa Department of Transportation Director Paul Trombino's September 12 letter to Wendy Messenger, regional manager of the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Railroad Policy & Development:
Specifically, we propose the FRA grant of $230 million of High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail funding to the states of Iowa and Illinois be split. We request the implementation of service from Chicago to Moline be managed directly by the Illinois Department of Transportation (DOT) and move forward for obligation and implementation. [...]
Concurrently with Illinois DOT implementing the Chicago to Moline passenger rail line, Iowa DOT would proceed with the Chicago to Omaha Regional Passenger Rail System Planning Study. This study was awarded $1 million of FY 2009 High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail planning funds. The required $1 million state match was appropriated by the Iowa Legislature and programmed by the Iowa Transportation Commission. This planning study is a critical step to assess a high-speed regional passenger rail system for the citizens of Iowa. The study will include analysis of higher speed express service for regional connections between Chicago and Iowa. The Chicago to Omaha Regional Passenger Rail System Planning Study will identify the preferred route location and complete Tier 1 environmental clearances for regional passenger rail service. [...]
Pending the findings of the Chicago to Omaha Regional Passenger Rail System Planning Study, Iowa DOT may request the Chicago to Iowa City project concept be revised from the original application.
In closing, this approach permits Illinois to move forward with their portion of the project while concurrently allowing the state of Iowa to assess a regional passenger rail system resulting in a better plan than originally envisioned.