In the final days of the 2011 Iowa legislative session, funding for passenger rail was one of the last disputes House Republican and Senate Democratic negotiators resolved. The final deal called for no passenger rail money in the state budget for fiscal year 2012, but left “intent” language describing future state funding to match federal grants for a train route between Iowa City and Chicago. At that time, news reports indicated that legislators would need to allocate $6.5 million toward passenger rail in fiscal year 2013 to keep this project alive, plus $10 million total in subsequent years.
Before the Iowa House and Senate adjourned last week, I saw no mention of passenger rail funding in any reports about the infrastructure budget for fiscal year 2013, which begins on July 1. Wondering whether no news was bad news, I started asking around. What I learned is after the jump, along with new links on the potential for passenger rail across Iowa.
Passenger rail should not be a partisan issue, but it has become one in Iowa and other states. Newly-elected Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida rejected federal funding for high-speed rail in 2011. Governor Terry Branstad didn’t go as far as rejecting federal money awarded to Iowa in late 2010, but he didn’t include any passenger rail funding in his own draft budget for 2012.
Meanwhile, Iowa House Republicans used their new majority status to try to eliminate passenger rail funding already approved for fiscal year 2011 and oppose any allocation for fiscal year 2012. I can’t explain the Republican hostility to rail projects in substantive terms. The money at stake is not a large portion of Iowa’s transportation spending. Arguments against “subsidies” for rail don’t hold water when no one questions the massive federal and state subsidies supporting our roads. I suspect that when Governor Chet Culver went all in for passenger rail, Iowa Republicans decided that whatever a Democrat was for must be bad. In addition, a rail link from Chicago to Iowa City through the Quad Cities would mostly benefit residents of Democratic-held Iowa House and Senate districts.
Members of the Iowa Transportation Commission supported the plan to extend Amtrak service in Iowa and even offered to “look at reallocating funds from existing programs” to match the federal grant. Nevertheless, last summer Branstad signaled his skepticism by withdrawing Iowa’s membership in the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative.
Under the leadership of Paul Trombino, the Iowa Department of Transportation announced last September that officials would study a different passenger rail plan, with the potential to serve a larger population. Click here for more details on the Iowa DOT’s Chicago to Omaha Regional Passenger Rail System Planning Study. Public meetings were held earlier this month, but Iowans can submit public comments online through May 21. Depending on the results of this study, the Iowa DOT may ask the federal government to support a rail link from Chicago to Omaha through Des Moines, instead of the original plan to end the rail link in Iowa City.
Running the rail line through central Iowa to the Council Bluffs/Omaha metro would increase the political leverage for this project. Republican lawmakers who represent the Des Moines suburbs and western Iowa could imagine their constituents benefiting from the rail line. Business groups like the Greater Des Moines Partnership are already for passenger rail but may lobby more actively if a line through central Iowa is a less distant goal. Their input has a better chance of bringing Branstad around than any case I could make for investing in rail.
Coming back to the starting point for this post: what’s going on with Iowa’s matching funds for passenger rail? The infrastructure budget for fiscal year 2013 doesn’t contain any money for rail. That’s not a death blow, because the Iowa DOT reset the clock, in effect, by requesting a new study of a line from Chicago to Omaha. According to Steve Falck, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Policy and Law Center, next year passenger rail advocates will need to convince state legislators to allocate funds for the new version of the project. The required match will depend on how much federal funding is at stake, but over several years, Iowa will need to allocate a total of 20 percent of the federal grant.
Bringing lawmakers on board with that may be a very heavy lift, especially if Republicans win control of the Iowa Senate and hold their Iowa House majority this November. Prospects for passenger rail funding would improve if Branstad became convinced of the value of passenger rail and included the matching money in his draft budgets for fiscal years 2014 and beyond.
Is the Chicago to Omaha passenger rail project worthwhile? One of my favorite transportation bloggers, BruceMcF, writes a “Sunday train” series at Daily Kos, and two of his recent posts featured the Iowa project. In “The Rock Island Line is a Mighty Find Iowa Rapid-Rail Road, BruceMcF discussed several possible routes through Iowa.
The Rock Island Line (blue line) through Moline, Iowa City, and Des Moines serves the greatest intermediate population, with an intermediate service population of 1,034,000. This alternative is expected to be able to use the existing Mississippi River bridge between Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa, and would require new second main track for half of its length, and new third track for a tenth of its length. It would be 17 minutes slower than the Cedar Rapids route at 79mph, and 25 minutes slower at 110mph. […]
While the Rock Island line has the wildcard advantage of the best song of the five route alternates, it does have a glaring weakness: while the Cedar Rapids route and the Burlington route both connect directly to Chicago Union Station, the Rock Island Line terminates at La Salle Street station, several blocks from Union Station. Making a junction to track with a direct connection to Chicago Union Station would require additional work, and would have to be fitted into the CREATE plan to remove passenger and freight rail bottlenecks in the greater Chicago area.
However, the Burlington Line and Rock Island Line cross in western Illinois, and it turns out that the route formed from the Burlington line on the eastern side to Chicago and the Rock Island Line on the western side through Iowa to Omaha (yellow highlight along green and blue lines) is first or second on most things we would want from a route.
The combined Rock Island Line / Burlington Line route has the same intermediate population as the Rock Island Line, so it is equal first in intermediate population. It is the second fastest route, 4 minutes slower than the Cedar Rapids route at 79mph and 14 minutes slower at 110mph. It is the second lowest cost alternative, after the Burlington line. And with its direct connection of the Burlington line into Chicago’s Union Station and superior speed to the Rock Island line all the way, it has the highest projected ridership and revenue.
BruceMcF goes on to analyze how a “new Cornhusker Rocket” would fit into a larger intercity rail network to the east and west. I recommend clicking through to read the whole thing.
In yesterday’s installment of “Sunday train,” BruceMcF drew up three possible timetables for Chicago to Omaha service. One assumes a “lower speed project operating at 8hrs 30mins Omaha to Chicago, with 30 minute turn-arounds. I assume that the Chicago to Quad Cities route is 3hrs, so I assume that the Quad Cities to Omaha is 5hrs 30min.” In that scenario, there would be three full trips each way daily.
The second timetable assumes track improvements to raise the maximum train speed from 89 miles per hour to 110 miles per hour. That would allow travelers to get Chicago to Omaha in seven and a half hours: two and a half hours to the Quad Cities, and another five hours from the Quad Cities across Iowa to Omaha. In that scenario, there could be five services each day.
BruceMcF’s third scenario looks “pie in the sky” to me: a true high-speed rail corridor, reaching maximum speeds of 125 miles per hour. Riders could get from Chicago to Omaha in six hours: two hours to the Quad Cities and another four hours across Iowa. In that case, every day there could be “six main services Omaha to Chicago, and a red eye service each way, primarily to pass trains through Chicago for regular overnight servicing but also as a red eye service allowing business traveller along the entire line to arrive in Chicago at the start of the business day and/or to depart for Chicago after the end of the business day.”
Any comments related to passenger rail in Iowa are welcome in this thread.