# Amtrak

Branstad not sold on new passenger rail for Iowa

Governor-elect Terry Branstad expressed concern today about the cost of new passenger rail links between Chicago and cities in Iowa.

“Well, I want to analyze the situation,” Branstad said. “I’m very concerned about the federal debt.” Public transportation advocates say if states like Ohio and Wisconsin reject high speed rail, it could stymie projects all across the Midwest. Branstad says he doesn’t want to rush to judgment.

“I want to carefully review and analyze the circumstances and I understand there are concerns about the huge cost of this and how cost effective it is and how much it would really be utilized,” Branstad said.

In late October, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced $230 million in funding for a new Amtrak route connecting Iowa City to Chicago via the Quad Cities. Senator Chuck Grassley has spoken approvingly about the project. A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration told me last week, “The money has been awarded.” One question mark is whether the route could be completed if the Iowa legislature declines to fund our state’s share of the costs in future years:

The project will cost $310 million, and Iowa and Illinois will pay pro-rated shares of costs not covered by the federal government. Iowa lawmakers have already appropriated $10 million and need to come up with another $10 million, said Tamara Nicholson, director of the Iowa DOT’s rail office. The state would also pay an estimated $3 million annually in operating subsidies. […]

Train supporters hope the route will someday be extended to Des Moines and Omaha. Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie has endorsed the idea and Tom Kane, executive director of the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning organization, says passenger trains are important to the future of Des Moines and the national transportation system.

“We know that much of the air traffic out of Chicago is for trips of less than 500 miles, so why are we flying? There will also be future congestion on the interstate highway system, particularly from freight and trucks. This will give our transportation consumers a choice,” Kane said.

Kane’s point is valid, but Republican lawmakers would probably rather widen interstate highways, even if that proved more costly than adding rail capacity.

The best hope of bringing Branstad around is a lobbying effort by business interests. Quite a few corporations and business groups support the Quad Cities Passenger Rail Coalition. The Greater Des Moines Partnership and central Iowa Young Professionals Connection back extending passenger rail across Iowa. This year’s chairman of the Greater Des Moines Partnership is Doug Reichardt, who is close to Branstad and was rumored to be on his short list for running mates last year. One of the partnership’s past presidents, Teresa Wahlert, “played a lead role in Branstad’s economic development agenda” during this year’s campaign.

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Iowa-Chicago rail funding secure despite election

The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives will change transportation policy priorities, but should not affect recently announced funding for a Chicago to Iowa City passenger rail link. KCCI-TV questioned this week, “Will Election Changes Kill Iowa-Chicago Train Funding?”

Florida Rep. John Mica, the comittee’s ranking GOP member, told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday that he believes high-speed trains are a good idea, but he doesn’t agree with the projects selected by the Transportation Department for funding.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was in Iowa just last week, where he joined local leaders to celebrate $230 million in federal money to start work on a passenger rail line. Service on the new GreenLine is expected to begin in 2015 and take passengers from Chicago’s Union Station to the Quad Cities to Iowa City.

I contacted the Federal Railroad Administration today to find out whether there is any way for Congress to reverse the passenger rail funding decisions. FRA spokesman Rob Kulat said, “You’d have to ask Chairman Mica” how he thinks he can do that, adding, “The money has been awarded.” When I asked about a possible review process, Kulat repeated, “The money has been awarded.”

The Wall Street Journal reported on November 3 that the newly elected Republican governors of Ohio and Wisconsin want to cancel passenger rail projects in their states. The same article said Iowa Governor-elect Terry Branstad “has supported expanding rail service between Chicago and cities in Iowa.” However, in late October Branstad’s campaign manager “declined to comment” when the Des Moines Register asked “if Branstad would support the use of state money to establish Chicago-to-Iowa City passenger service.”

Some Republicans claimed the passenger rail grant was a political ploy to help endangered Democrats in Iowa and the Quad Cities. If so, it didn’t work. Representative Phil Hare lost his re-election bid in Illinois’ 17th Congressional district, including Rock Island and Moline. Representative Bruce Braley was re-elected narrowly but trailed his Republican opponent in Scott County, containing Davenport and Bettendorf. Governor Chet Culver didn’t carry Scott County either.

It’s too bad the outgoing Congress didn’t approve a comprehensive transportation funding bill. Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar had a strong vision for balancing priorities and increasing investments in passenger rail and public transit. The Republicans who will write the new highway bill have little interest in rail or the administration’s efforts to make roads more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly. At a Congressional hearing this March, Iowa’s own Tom Latham asserted that every bicyclist is one fewer person paying into the transportation trust fund.

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Chicago-Iowa City passenger rail funding approved

The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded $230 million in federal funding today for a new Amtrak route connecting Chicago and Iowa City, Senators Tom Harkin and Dick Durbin announced. The route will go through the Quad Cities. From a statement released by Harkin’s office:

The project – scheduled for completion in 2015 – will create 588 jobs per year for the first four years of design and construction.  Once initiated, the new service is expected to increase business activity at $25 million per year. […]

The new Chicago – Quad Cities – Iowa City route will provide two daily round-trips and carry trains traveling at speeds up to 79 miles per hour (mph) with an expected trip time of less than 5 hours.  The long-term vision for the line includes expanding the frequency of trains to offer more than two daily round-trip trains; extending the route; and making additional infrastructure investments to increase speeds from 79 mph to 90 mph, or even 110 mph.

Today’s news is a pleasant surprise. Although Governor Chet Culver and several members of Congress strongly advocated for expanding passenger rail in Iowa, the U.S. Department of Transportation did not fund an earlier grant request supporting Amtrak routes between Chicago and Iowa City and Chicago and Dubuque.

A 2008 Amtrak feasibility study on passenger rail from Iowa City to the Quad Cities estimated annual ridership on the route at “about 187,000 passengers, based on two daily round-trips and if improvements are made allowing maximum speeds of 79 mph.” Typical passenger trains reach maximum speeds of 79 mph; anything faster than 110 mph is considered “high-speed rail.”

More details on today’s announced funding are in the full statement from Harkin’s office, which I’ve posted after the jump. The Quad-City Rail Coalition website has additional background information on the proposed route. Central Iowa business and political leaders hope a Chicago-Iowa City passenger rail link could eventually be extended through Des Moines to the Council Bluffs-Omaha metro area.

UPDATE: I’ve added a press release from the governor’s office with more details. It states that first-year ridership on the route between Iowa City and Chicago is projected at 246,800.

TUESDAY UPDATE: Senator Chuck Grassley also expressed support for this passenger rail link: “You’re finding a situation where, connected with the problems of Homeland Security, the problems of terrorists on airplanes, the fact that airlines are having trouble providing the service they used to provide, alternative service like rail service is something that, at least on a regional basis, is going to pay off.”

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Feds give no money for passenger rail to Iowa City

The Des Moines Register’s William Petroski reports today that the Obama administration declined requests for federal money to support Amtrak routes between Chicago and Iowa City and between Chicago and Dubuque.

A list of grants issued Wednesday night by the White House shows that Iowa will receive only $18 million in federal railroad passenger money. This includes $1 million to study a proposed passenger train that would run daily between Chicago and Omaha, including stops in the Quad Cities, Iowa City and Des Moines.

The remaining $17 million will be used to install four remote- controlled powered crossovers on the BNSF Railway tracks in the Ottumwa area. This will reduce travel times and improve on-time performance on Amtrak’s existing California Zephyr train that runs across southern Iowa, federal officials said.

Iowa and Illinois officials had sought $256 million in federal funds for the Chicago to Iowa City route, which would go through the Quad Cities, and $139 million for the Chicago to Dubuque route.

Dubuque and the Quad Cities may get passenger rail despite today’s disappointing news:

Even without the federal money, Illinois officials expect to begin Amtrak service between Chicago and Dubuque and Chicago and the Quad Cities, possibly within two years, officials said. That’s because Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a $31 billion capital construction package last year to ensure the rail expansion.

But the federal grants would have bolstered both projects and would have assured the extension of the train service to Iowa City, and possibly eventually to Des Moines, officials said.

A feasibility study from 2008 showed promising numbers for an Amtrak route connecting Iowa City to the Quad Cities. A huge number of University of Iowa students are from the Chicago area, and many people living in that region of Iowa travel to Chicago for business or entertainment.

In comments to the Des Moines Reigster, Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba predicted yesterday that the Chicago to Iowa City train would receive some federal funding by 2013, even if the current grant request was denied. I hope he turns out to be right.

UPDATE: Governor Chet Culver’s response to this news is after the jump.

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A few links on passenger rail and transportation policy

Governor Chet Culver rode a train from Iowa City to Chicago Sunday, promoting passenger rail links en route to the Midwest High Speed Rail Summit, which starts Monday.  

After the jump I’ve posted some news relating to passenger rail in Iowa and nationwide, including a follow-up on Congressman Tom Latham’s attempt to transfer funds from high-speed rail to the highway fund.

UPDATE: From the governor’s office on July 27:

Governor Chet Culver and Governor Pat Quinn today signed a Memorandum of Understanding to coordinate efforts by Iowa and Illinois to establish passenger rail service from Chicago to Dubuque and from Chicago to the Quad Cities and Iowa City.

In addition, Governor Culver joined leaders from eight states who signed a Memorandum of Understanding in support of regional high-speed rail. That agreement includes, as a key goal, extending passenger service from Iowa City to Des Moines and on to Omaha. […]

Following the signing of the eight-state high-speed rail agreement, Iowa and Illinois officials signed a separate agreement that spells out action to be taken by the transportation departments in both states.

Click here and scroll down to find links to the rail agreements signed in Chicago on July 27.

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Events coming up during the rest of July (updated)

The RAGBRAI riders are enjoying some relatively cool weather this week, although last night’s rain may have been unpleasant for campers. If you’re riding and have any anecdotes to share, post them here.

Details on other events going on around the state are after the jump. As always, post a comment or send me an e-mail (desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com) if you know of something I’ve left out.

Occasionally I put a river clean-up on these event calendars, so I wanted to let the Bleeding Heartland community know about this opportunity:

The Iowa Whitewater Coalition today announced the Clean Rivers Team Stewardship Program (CRTSP) — a mini-grant program to help fund local river clean-up activities across Iowa.

Any community group or organization in Iowa is welcome to apply for a grant from the CRTSP for the purpose of paying expenses related to river clean-up activities. Grants are limited to a maximum of $500.

Details are available at www.iowawhitewater.org and a Letter of Application may be submitted at any time to Iowa Whitewater Coalition, PO Box 65453, West Des Moines, IA 50265. Questions can be addressed by Peter Komendowski at 319-269-8493.

UPDATE: Added details on the Iowa Politics forum for Republican gubernatorial candidates (July 22) after the jump.

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A Republican for Transportation Secretary and more reaction to Obama's cabinet picks

President-elect Barack Obama has apparently decided to appoint retiring Republican Congressman Ray LaHood of Illinois as Secretary of Transportation. LaHood was elected to the U.S. House in the 1994 landslide. He decided not to run for re-election this year because “It’s not any fun being in the minority.” (Are you listening, Tom Latham?)

An Illinois blogger writes that LaHood doesn’t have much of a record on transportation issues, although he has voted for more public transit funding and more passenger rail service on Amtrak.

At Grist, Ryan Avent sees three possibilities:

  1. Obama doesn’t intend the DOT secretary to do the heavy lifting on his transportation policies,

  2. Obama doesn’t really care about transportation, and

  3. It isn’t true.

But I agree with the reader who suggested a fourth possibility:

4) Obama knows this guy personally, finds him to be a trustworthy sort.  

I am going to hope for number 4 and that Obama will have LaHood implement the transportation priorities Obama and Biden believe in. Expanding passenger rail is one of the biggies.

Incidentally, LaHood was one of the leaders of the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Let’s hope he won’t try to undermine Obama’s presidency as well.

Regarding Obama’s choice of Senator Ken Salazar for Secretary of Interior, some environmental groups are concerned. He’s far from the environmental champion they were hoping for in Congressman Raul Grijalva. Kate Sheppard has more on the environmental community’s mixed feelings on Salazar at Grist.

However, the Sierra Club praised Salazar, as well as Tom Vilsack, in this press release.

In this Daily Kos diary, Kula 2316 provides more reaction to Obama’s choice of Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture.

Share any relevant thoughts in the comments.

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Braley named to conference committee for Amtrak bill

Representative Bruce Braley, who has been working hard to promote passenger rail service to Iowa, has been named to the conference committee on the 2008 Amtrak Reauthorization Bill. A press release quotes Braley as saying, “I’m excited by the opportunity to continue working on the Amtrak bill and to support Iowa’s passenger rail needs.” The full text of that release is after the jump.

That committee will resolve differences between the Senate and House versions of the Amtrak bill. The House approved a bill last month with language likely to help bring Amtrak service to Dubuque and the Quad Cities.

Speaking of passenger rail, this post from the DCist blog lays out the contrast between Barack Obama and John McCain on transit issues. The whole post is worth reading, but one key point is that McCain says closing down Amtrak would be “a non-negotiable issue” if he became president.  

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Bipartisan caucus to push for new transportation policies

Representatives Ellen Tauscher (D, CA-10) and Tom Petri (R, WI-06), both members of the House Transportation Committee, are forming a “Metropolitan Mobility Caucus” to revamp federal transportation policy.

Here is the “Dear colleague” letter they are circulating among members of Congress:

Dear Colleague,

We invite you to join the Metropolitan Mobility Caucus.

Transportation congestion is a major economic and environmental problem in metropolitan areas. Although the top 100 metropolitan areas represent only 12% of the land in the United States, they contain 65% of our nation’s population. They account for more than 90% of traffic congestion, transit ridership, and population exposure to autorelated air pollution. Urban areas handle 95% of the nation’s trade, 96% of rail passengers, and 75% of seaport tonnage. Congestion has never been worse. In 2005, urban congestion cost $78.2 billion in wasted time and fuel, which equates to $707 annually per traveler.

We believe that federal transportation policy should take a fresh approach to solving the various metropolitan infrastructure problems. As we continue to examine the structure of the next highway bill, our caucus will advocate for stronger partnerships between federal, state, and local transportation officials; greater use of public transportation, including intercity passenger rail; regional mobility goals; and performance standards.

In the coming months, we plan to hold staff briefings to examine these and other issues. The first briefing will take place on Monday, July 21st at 4:30 PM in 2253 RHOB. Cohosted by the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations and the American Planning Association, this briefing will focus on the role of MPOs in the transportation planning process. If you would like to join the Metropolitan Mobility Caucus, please contact Paul Schmid (Tauscher) or Tyler Schwartz (Petri).


Ellen O. Tauscher

Tom E. Petri

I hope some of Iowa’s representatives in Congress will join this caucus. It’s a natural fit for Leonard Boswell and Bruce Braley, who serve on the House Transportation Committee, but others could get behind this initiative as well. The number of Iowans who do not drive or cannot afford a car will grow as our population ages and gasoline becomes more expensive.

We don’t think of Iowa as having major metropolitan areas, but most of our medium-sized and larger cities would benefit from better public transit options and intercity rail. Even small towns would benefit from express bus service or vanpools that could get people to jobs, shops, doctors or other facilities in larger cities nearby.

Bike-friendly and pedestrian-friendly roads provide alternatives to driving and improve the quality of life in cities and towns of all sizes.  

The Smart Growth America website has lots of information on how federal policies could improve our transportation system.

By the way, of all the presidential candidates, Bill Richardson had the best vision on transportation policy. It wasn’t just talk, either–as governor, Richardson spent political capital to make intercity rail between Albuquerque and Santa Fe a reality.

People often mention Richardson as a possible vice-president or secretary of state, but in my fantasy cabinet he would be secretary of transportation.

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We're already paying for McCain's hostility to Amtrak

Rising gasoline prices are prompting more Americans to seek out transportation alternatives.

In Europe a high-speed rail network links seven countries already. But Amtrak only has 632 usable cars in the whole country.

Unfortunately, John McCain’s hostility to Amtrak over the years blew any chance of building a modern, effective passenger rail system before the price of oil hit record highs:

In 2000, when he was chairman of the Senate Science, Commerce and Transportation committee, McCain killed $10 billion in capital funding for Amtrak. He denounced Amtrak as a symbol of government waste, claiming, “There’s only two parts of the country that can support a viable rail system – the Northeast and the far West.”

He made these claims though Amtrak investment had the support of several notable Republicans. Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi warned that Amtrak “is guaranteed and doomed to failure if we don’t give it an opportunity to succeed. If you don’t have modern equipment, if you don’t have the new fast trains, if you don’t have a rapid rail system, it will not work.”

Tommy Thompson, the secretary of Health and Human Services during President Bush’s first term, was Amtrak chairman when McCain blocked the funding. Thompson said, “The traveling public are sending a distress call to escape our nation’s endless traffic jams and airport gridlock.”

How much better off would we be if we had invested $10 billion in upgrading Amtrak’s equipment eight years ago?

Click the link to read the whole column by Derrick Jackson. While Barack Obama has co-sponsored a Senate bill to increase investment in passenger rail, McCain’s website has no mention of rail in the transportation section.

We can’t afford to let McCain screw up our transportation policy any more than he already has.

If you are interested in passenger rail, I highly recommend these diaries by Daily Kos user BruceMcF:

America, as it turns out, was Made for High Speed Rail.

5 Lessons Learned: America was made for HSR, Pt. 2.

High Speed Rail: The Three Level Program.

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Action: Give us more transportation choices

I received this action alert today from Smart Growth America:

Dear [desmoinesdem],

Can you believe the impact rising gas prices are having across the country?

Here in D.C., people are abandoning their cars and taking the Metro in record numbers. But most Americans don’t have options like Metro for relief — they don’t have access to convienient public transportation or live in walkable, connected neighborhoods. For years, our leaders have underinvested in these solutions, and now we’re paying the price as fuel prices rise by the day.

We need to demand better transportation choices that can help us get where we need to go — while saving money, conserving oil, and fighting global warming. Urge your Congressional member to support more funding for transit, biking, and smart growth by clicking on the button below to send them a message.

Congressional members Earl Blumenauer and Ellen Tauscher are leading an effort to invest in transit and smart growth — please ask your Representative to join them!

Thanks for your support.

Steve Davis

Smart Growth America

Please feel free to forward this to any of your friends and colleagues who might be interested in taking action or receiving alerts like this one in the future. If you received this message from a friend, you can sign up for news and alerts here.

Keep track of SGA’s current advocacy work and get valuable resources to bolster your own efforts on our action page.

You can click here to

write and tell your representative to sign onto a letter from Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Ellen Tauscher urging Congress to increase funding for public transit, biking, public transportation, and walkable neighborhoods in federal climate legislation. Note: you can edit or personalize the text of the email below, which will help strengthen your message. Feel free to personalize it or add a story of your own from your legislator’s district.

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Two pieces worth reading on transportation policy

At Daily Kos, Devilstower offers five Good Ideas that are Bad Politics. They are:

A five year moratorium on new highway construction

End to single-purpose zoning

Bus Rapid Transit with Dedicated Lanes

Relaxing automotive safety laws

Fifty-five Mile an Hour Speed Limit

Click the link to read the case he makes for each of those. I agree with all of them except relaxing the safety rules. He makes some intriguing points, but I don’t think that change would produce the effect he’d like to see.

Yesterday, Daily Kos user bink wrote this diary: Amtrak Has Too Few Usable Train Cars Left. The gist is that demand for passenger rail is skyrocketing because of high gasoline prices, but Amtrak has a limited ability to lay on more trains because it has been starved of adequate funding for so long.

This should concern anyone who wants to see more passenger rail options available to Iowans.

By the way, Barack Obama wants to invest more in rail transportation, while John McCain has opposed funding for Amtrak for many years.

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Dubuque and Quad Cities are one step closer to passenger rail

I learned from Congressman Bruce Braley’s office that the House approved the 2008 Amtrak Reauthorization Bill on Wednesday. The bill includes funds proposed by Braley that will promote passenger rail links like the ones that may connect Chicago with Dubuque and the Quad Cities.

I appreciate Braley’s efforts to invest more in alternative transportation. Many Iowans will one day benefit from his work on the House Transportation Committee.

Now if Congressman Leonard Boswell would pick up the ball, maybe my family will be able to take a train from Des Moines to Chicago five or six years from now.

By the way, John McCain has long opposed Amtrak and would like to shut it down if elected president.

The full text of the press release from Braley’s office is after the jump.

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Braley promoting passenger rail options for Iowans

Not long ago Amtrak released the results of a feasibility study on a passenger rail link between Iowa City, the Quad Cities, and Chicago. (Later this year the next phase of the study will examine extending passenger rail to Des Moines as well.)

A few days ago, Congressman Bruce Braley (IA-01) introduced the 2008 Amtrak Reauthorization Bill, which (according to a press release from Braley’s office)

includes language to create a new, $500 million per year “State Capital Grant Program.”  The program would award federal grants to states to pay for the construction of new passenger rail service between US cities.

Projects that could apply for funding under this program include proposed passenger rail service between Chicago and the Quad Cities, the Quad Cities and Des Moines via Iowa City, and Chicago and Dubuque.

The bill also includes a Braley-sponsored provision mandating a Federal Railroad Administration study into the viability of the widespread use of biolubricants in freight and passenger rail as an alternative to petroleum-based lubricants.  The University of Northern Iowa’s National Ag-Based Lubricant Center (NABL) is located in Iowa’s First District.

The full text of the press release is after the jump.

I appreciate Braley’s leadership on this issue and wonder why my own Congressman Leonard Boswell hasn’t made passenger rail service between Chicago and Des Moines more of a priority in his work on the House Transportation Committee. My family would love to be able to take a train to Chicago. It would be much easier for us than traveling by car or plane with two small children.

Expanding passenger rail will also help us reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and will be more cost-effective as the price of oil continues to rise in the long term.

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