March 9, 2009

CHICAGO (March 9)—U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn said Illinois plans to be first in line for its share of $8 billion in new federal passenger-rail funds and that full development of the Chicago-St. Louis corridor to 110-mph status would be assigned top priority in the state’s list of passenger-rail projects.

“Gov. Quinn and I agree,” Durbin told a meeting of government and rail-industry leaders at Chicago Union Station. “Illinois is poised to be a central part of our nation’s next round of rail innovation and, by working as a team, we will be well positioned to acquire the funding needed to create a true high-speed rail corridor from Chicago to St. Louis.

The meeting, which included Amtrak Chairman Tom Carper, newly appointed Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Gary Hannig, and Union Pacific Railroad Senior VP Bob Turner, was convened to discuss strategies for making sure Illinois would be in prime position to maximize its share of the $8 billion in passenger-rail development funds that became available to the states when President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

The language in the ARRA does not spell out a specific number of dollars in passenger-rail aid for individual states. Instead, states get to compete for the money in the federal pot based on how ready they are to start implementing their intercity passenger rail priorities.

“The ARRA is a stimulus bill, don’t forget,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Bob Guy. “The purpose of it was not just to get projects built but to get them started as soon as possible, so jobs can be created and people can get back to work and start earning paychecks.”

Guy said when it comes to rail projects Illinois should qualify for a “substantial” share of the money because it has been investing in passenger rail for decades and has a long list of ready-to-go projects.

“Illinois has a long history of partnering with Amtrak to provide passenger rail service and has been investing in rail infrastructure for quite some time, including previous improvements on the Chicago to St. Louis corridor,” Guy said.

Sen. Durbin noted that since 2006, when the Illinois Legislature approved funding that doubled the number of daily frequencies, ridership on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor has grown 57 per cent and “….by working as a team, we will be well positioned to win the funding needed to create true high-speed rail on that corridor.”

Gov. Quinn pledged the state to the same goal, saying, “I am committed to ensuring Illinois takes full advantage of the stimulus package, including competing for and winning stimulus dollars to bring high-speed rail to Illinois.” Quinn said track and signal improvements paid for with the new ARRA funds would reduce the Chicago-St. Louis running time “from more than five hours to less than four.”

The Illinois Department of Transportation already has budgeted $175.3 million for improvements to the Chicago-St. Louis route, including installation of Union Pacific’s cab-signaling system, rebuilding the track between Springfield and St. Louis to 110-mph standards, upgrading six sidings with high-speed turnouts, and reconfiguring the track and platforms at Joliet Union Station.

An additional $150 million has been budgeted for 12 new trainsets, which would protect and enhance all of the state-sponsored routes. “Equipment is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately,” said Amtrak Board Chairman Carper. “Our dedicated and ever growing number of passengers deserve the amenities that would come with improved equipment.”

Guy said that in addition to creating new jobs for construction workers, IDOT’s planned projects would generate jobs for train crew members as well.

“Reduced travel times and improved reliability would lead to higher passenger demand, more new frequencies, and more hiring and training of new crew members and support personnel,” he said.

Guy said he was grateful to Sen. Durbin for putting together the meeting, as well as for his sustained commitment to passenger rail development over the years.

“It’s so refreshing to hear people finally talking about rail expansion instead of just trying to save what we have,” Guy said.