July 5, 2005

The Midwest Business Coalition for Passenger Rail was established June 24 with a membership made up of chambers of commerce and economic-development commissions in 47 cities across eight states—Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, Missouri and Minnesota.

The members immediately went to work phoning their representatives in the U.S House, asking them to reject the House Appropriation Committee’s June 21 recommendation of a $550-million FY 2006 budget for Amtrak.

A week later, on June 28, the full House overturned the Committee’s proposed budget and passed an amendment providing Amtrak with $1.17 billion. The House also rejected Committee language that would have barred Amtrak from running any of the eight long-distance trains that originate in the Midwest. Both House provisions now must be reconciled in Conference Committee with any measures approved in the Senate.

“The new Coalition is something we rail advocates in the Midwest have long needed on our side—a balance of business people,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “When a businessman, or the executive director of a chamber of commerce, picks up the phone and tells a congressman that passenger trains are essential to a community’s economy, the congressman listens. It brings another element – another constituency – to the mix.”

Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, echoed Szabo’s observation, saying, “Moving people efficiently and affordably around the Midwest is key to the region’s economic growth. Rail has proven itself as a viable and growing transportation option and can be a lifeblood for communities who seek to maintain a more rural or suburban way of life, but who must be connected to the larger economy.”

Szabo said he and members of the Midwest High Speed Rail Working Group began advocating almost two years ago for a greater role for business in the Midwest’s growing passenger-rail movement.

In his travels around the state, Szabo said, he met a growing number of business people and chamber-of-commerce officials who told him that deteriorating rural air service and increasing congestion on the Interstates was making it difficult for Downstate businesses to maintain convenient connections their head offices, suppliers, customers and banks in the Chicago metropolitan area.

“Amtrak is a critical component of our transportation network,” said Dick Granchalek of the La Cross, Wis., Chamber of Commerce. “A round-trip flight to Chicago can cost more than $600. We need Amtrak in order to create jobs and thrive.”

The Midwest Business Coalition for Passenger Rail is an autonomous organization and is independent of Amtrak and the commuter-rail agencies. Member agencies range from the chambers of commerce in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Detroit; to smaller cities served by Amtrak, such as Carbondale, La Crosse, and Effingham; to cities such as the Illinois Quad Cities and Green Bay, Wis., which are still seeking passenger-train service; to Chicago suburbs such as Evanston and Maywood, which do not have Amtrak service but benefit from easy access to it.

“Formation of the Coalition shows business is ‘getting it’ about passenger trains,” Szabo said. “The business community understands that passenger trains are essential to strong economic growth.

“With the help of these members, and with others who are yet to join,” Szabo said, “we look forward not only to saving our existing passenger service but to passing legislation that will fund an expanding network of modern passenger trains all across the Midwest.”