New passenger rail off the table for Iowa?

Hopes to bring passenger rail service from Chicago to Iowa City and eventually to Des Moines and Council Bluffs appear to be dead. For the last three years, State Senator Matt McCoy tried to secure state matching funds for a federal passenger rail grant, citing many possible economic benefits to Iowa. Both Governor Terry Branstad and Iowa House Republicans have opposed allocating funds toward new passenger rail. Speaking to the Sunday Des Moines Register's William Petroski, McCoy blamed Iowa House Republicans, not the governor, for killing the project. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen told the Register that his caucus did not see the project as a "wise investment."

I've posted excerpts from yesterday's story after the jump. Neither McCoy nor Paulsen mentioned that the Iowa House speaker works for a trucking company. The trucking industry generally opposes improvements to rail infrastructure. Paulsen's closed mind on passenger rail is one reason I was disappointed when he decided against running for Congress.

UPDATE: Added new comments from Branstad after the jump.

Excerpt from William Petroski's article for the Sunday Des Moines Register, "McCoy gives up on train funds."

McCoy, a leading advocate of rail service to Des Moines, said that after three years of failed efforts to win House GOP support for the project, he is calling it quits. [...]

"I am prepared to pronounce it dead and claim that it is the House Republicans who absolutely killed it. It wasn't the governor. It was the House Republicans," McCoy said. "I think that we will have to forfeit the federal money and be done with it. I dread it, but I don't see anybody working the issue any more. The advocates have given up. [...] "

Illinois and Iowa were jointly awarded a $230 million federal grant for the project in October 2010 while Chet Culver, a Democrat, was Iowa's governor. The money was part of a $10 billion program by President Barack Obama's administration to stimulate the economy and develop a national network of high-speed passenger trains.

Iowa's share was initially pegged at $87 million to help establish a 79 mph train service between the Quad Cities and Iowa City, while the Illinois Department of Transportation proposed to use its share to develop service between Chicago and the Quad Cities. However, Iowa's grant has since been reduced to $53 million, Iowa DOT officials said last week.

The sticking point with House Republicans for each of the past three legislative sessions has been a need to approve about $20 million in state money to help launch Iowa City train service. In addition, Iowa DOT officials had estimated an Iowa City train would require operating subsidies of about $3 million annually. The train would offer twice-daily, round-trip service between Iowa City and Chicago with a projected annual ridership of 246,800 people.

UPDATE: Branstad commented on October 21,

"I know that there has been considerable skepticism whether or not this would be feasible," Branstad told reporters at his weekly Statehouse news conference. He also noted that Iowa is already served by an Amtrak train passing across southern Iowa, and that Republican governors in other states have rejected federal money to expand passenger rail service, determining it was not a good investment.

But the Iowa DOT is still working on a study that examines the development of passenger rail service in the entire corridor between Chicago and Omaha, Neb., Branstad noted. The corridor includes Davenport, Iowa City, Grinnell, Newton, Des Moines, Atlantic and Council Bluffs.

DOT officials said the study is nearing completion, although they are not sure it will be finished by the time the Iowa Legislature convenes in January. Branstad, a Republican, said he wants a "full recommendation" from DOT officials before deciding whether to cancel plans for the train by returning $53 million awarded to Iowa by the Federal Railroad Administration in October 2010 to help establish its share of the Chicago-to-Iowa City passenger rail service.

That's much less negative than previous statements suggesting Branstad opposed any passenger rail plan that involved an ongoing subsidy from the state.

  • Way way way too expensive...

    The train proposal never came even close to making sense financially.  For those that want to get more informed on this issue I recommend the article "Stopping the Runaway Train" by Randal O'Toole of November 13, 2012.  

    I have long felt that we wasted a lot of time and effort on this proposal which was not going anywhere.

    • rail is a huge economic boost

      both light rail and inter-city passenger rail create tremendous business growth and rising property values in areas accessible to the train stations.

      Rising fuel costs in the future will make passenger rail a better choice than cars and trucks, but thanks to people like you, it will be too late for Iowa to take advantage.

      • desmoinesdem, the leading experts disagree with you...

        You remember Charles Hales, the expert Des Moines brought to town to consult recently on transit issues, right before he became mayor of Portland.  Charles has some interesting comments on development brought by rail:

        (From Debunking Portland: The Public Transit Myth, August 15, 2007)

        "the developments supposedly stimulated by new light rail and streetcar lines?  They were built only after the region started handing out billions of dollars in subsidies after the transit lines were built.  When Portland opened its first light rail line in 1986, the city immediately zoned the land near stations for high density developments.  A decade later, not a single transit oriented development had been built in these areas.

        To generate development, then city Commissioner Charles Hales urged the city to offer property tax waivers, grants, and other subsidies to developers.  "It is a myth to think the market will take care of development along transit corridors," said Hales"

        Thus, massive subsidies post construction caused development, NOT the rail lines being developed.  This is repeated over and over again.

        Regarding your fuel efficiency argument, it would have been interesting if you had at least looked at the link in my first post here which discusses that. Let me quote the research from page 8, "buses have a clear energy-saving advantage over Amtrak.  Moreover, under current trends, even flying will be more energy efficient than trains in a few years.".  Also, "by 2015 the average automobile...will use less energy per passenger mile in intercity travel than Amtrak uses today."  Also, "the same conclusion was reached by the Congressional Research Service in 1996 and by the National Surface Transportation Revenue and Policy Commission in 2007.  "If Congress wants to save eneregy, it should stop subsidizing Amtrak, and encourage expansion of intercity bus service along Amtrak corridors.

        Desmoinesdem, I am however fascinated by your usage of the Association of Railroad Passengers as one of your sources.  You are of course aware that the founder of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, Anthony Haswell (known as the Father of Amtrak) is on record as saying "I am personally embarrassed by what I helped to create", and calls Amtrak now a "boondoggle". (Amtrak, The Reality Tarnishes the Crusade, Journal of Commerce, January 7, 2000.

        In addition, Joseph Vranich, a former executive director of The National Association of Railroad Passengers says "Amtrak's performance has been dismal" and supports privatization.  (What went wrong and What to do about America's Passenger trains, St. Martins Press 1997.

        Desmoinesdem, the real facts do not at all support your conclusions.  

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