March 28, 2011

CHICAGO (Jan. 20)—Public Broadcasting System viewers got an eyeful and an earful about Midwestern passenger-rail policy last Friday when the network’s “Need to Know” program broadcast a 10-minute special report comparing Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to build up rail in Illinois with newly elected Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to squelch it in Wisconsin.

The “A Tale of Two Governors,” which features an extensive interview with Quinn, can be viewed at:

The “Need to Know” team also tried to get a statement from Walker, but a staff member told the show’s producer the Wisconsin governor was “too busy” to be interviewed about his controversial decision to return $810 million in approved passenger-rail funding to the federal government.

Interviewer Rick Karr began the report by comparing and contrasting the experiences of two Midwestern travelers, Illinois State University employee John Thomas of Normal and Wisconsin entrepreneur Kevin Conway of Madison.

While Thomas is shown working at his seat aboard an Amtrak Lincoln Service train rushing across the snow-covered prairie to Chicago, Conway is shown at the wheel of his car, where he must struggle with traffic and weather while driving to meetings in Milwaukee. Amtrak offers no service between Madison and Milwaukee because a dilapidated 32-mile segment of the right of way has not been rebuilt for passenger service.

“In the winter, meetings are often cancelled because of the weather,” Conway tells the interviewer. But he says even when the weather is not a problem he still wishes for train service because “You can’t get work done in a car.”

That’s not going to happen soon, however, because although the Federal Railroad Administration last year awarded Wisconsin $810 million in Stimulus Funding to rebuild the right of way and install 110-mph signaling, incoming Gov. Walker ran on a “stop-the-train” platform and turned the money back to the federal government once he was elected. All work on the project has stopped.

Conway calls Walker’s decision “short-term political thinking.”

“That’s not the way business people make decisions,” he tells Karr. “Business people sit down around a table, they argue, they analyze, they go back and do their homework. [Walker’s decision] was basically a 30-second political ad.”

“We’ll show them,” Quinn tells Karr, noting that Illinois has steadily supported, in a bi-partisan manner, expansion of its passenger-train system and has been rewarded with a continuous growth in ridership. Now, he says, Illinois is using $1.1 billion in Stimulus funds to upgrade portions of the Chicago-St. Louis line for the kind of 110-mph service Wisconsin could have had between Milwaukee and Madison.

“We can’t walk to the future,” Quinn tells Karr. “We have to run to the future. It’s like President Eisenhower building the Interstate highway system in the 1950s. There were a lot of skeptics and nay-sayers back then too. Some states were suspicious. But it turned out to be a great thing for the country’s development.”

The segment also shows Normal Mayor Chris Koos explaining how the Illinois passenger-rail program already has started generating economic development in his community—even though the faster train service and modern stations haven’t opened yet.

Standing at the site next to the Union Pacific tracks where Normal’s new intermodal station is under construction, Koos points out the new Marriott Hotel and Convention Center erected across the street in anticipation of the tourists, business travelers and conference attendees expected to converge on the Bloomington-Normal area as the train service and station facilities improve.

“When high-speed rail comes on line it’s going to be very easy for people to come down to this community, get off the train, walk across the street and spend three days here without ever seeing a car,” the mayor tells the interviewer. “There’s entertainment, convention facilities, dining out—it’s all right here.”

“The city of Normal is the shining example of what is possible in terms of economic development around its passenger depot,” UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy said. “The area has basically been one big construction zone for more than a decade, and will continue to thrive as more and more passengers are delivered to the heart of this community.”

Guy said he was proud to see Illinois’ high-speed rail program featured on the nationwide news network and pleased to see how accurately it presented the issues.

“PBS got it right,” Guy said. “I really urge all our members to watch this 10-minute video segment and share in the excitement that people feel when they realize fast trains are coming to Illinois and their communities. I would also urge our members to share the video with friends and family. It’s full of good news about rail and good news about Illinois.”

Guy said UTU members in Illinois have their own grounds for taking pride in the state’s passenger-rail achievements.

“Our union has been proud to partner with fellow labor groups, business associations, environmentalists, mayors and educators, among others, to collaboratively advocate for passenger rail in Illinois, and these collaborations have paid off,” he said.

“Every time Amtrak releases another monthly performance report showing growing ridership and stronger revenues on the Illinois trains, we see our effort bearing fruit.”

But Guy said he remains frustrated that anti-rail forces in neighboring states fail to acknowledge that Illinois’ passenger-train program is a success.

“It bothers me when critics continually spew the same old argument that ridership won’t follow these investments,” he said. “In Illinois we’ve proven that when you put good train service out there, people ride it in growing numbers—which raises fare revenues and saves the state money.”

Gov. Quinn echoed Guy’s frustration with the rail critics.

“You can’t have a future without high-speed rail,” Quinn says at the conclusion of the program. “It’s disappointing that some of these other governors don’t have that vision.”