October 31, 2007

WASHINGTON (Oct. 30)—By a strong bi-partisan majority of 70-22, the U.S. Senate today voted to re-authorize Amtrak for a six-year period and to create the first federal/state matching grant program to help states expand their capital investment in new passenger-rail capacity.

The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2007 was introduced in January by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who sits on the Senate’s Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee. The legislation, known as S. 294, provides an increased operating budget for Amtrak, as well as an Intercity Passenger Rail Capital Grant Program under which states would receive federal money for investment in track, signals, stations and passenger rolling stock if they agree to match the federal grant with state funds in an 80/20 ratio.

Durbin said that if the House passes similar legislation and the legislation is signed into law, Illinois would secure the funding it needs to expand its current network of state-supported Amtrak routes to new routes connecting Chicago with the Quad Cities and with Rockford, Freeport, Galena and Dubuque.

“As investment in passenger rail has increased, more and more communities are clamoring for service,” Durbin said. “Federal, state and local leaders recently worked together to find a rail route for residents in Rockford that would serve as an alternative to the congested roads in and out of Chicago. We are now pursuing the same process of cooperation to provide the Quad Cities with expanded service. This bill, in tandem with state funding, makes it possible for us to continue to expand rail service throughout the state and country.”

UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo hailed the Senate’s action, saying that Illinois would be one of the chief beneficiaries of S. 294’s capital-grant program.

“That’s because the language of the bill includes something known as a ‘lookback,’” Szabo said. “A lookback means that a state that has already invested some of its own funds in passenger-rail improvements can use those past expenditures as its current 20-per-cent match against federal funds.

“For example, Illinois already has invested about $60 million in rebuilding 118 miles of the Union Pacific’s Chicago-St. Louis line for 110-miles-per-hour operation,” Szabo said. “If the state were to post half of that sum, $30 million, as its 20-per-cent share, the federal government would match it with the other 80 per cent, which comes to $120 million.

“No additional state appropriation would be needed to get that $120 million because our earlier investment would be counted as our match,” Szabo said. “That kind of money could buy a lot of new passing tracks, high-speed signaling, highway grade separations, new rolling stock—or a mixture of those elements.”

Szabo said the Illinois Department of Transportation has estimated that in order to open passenger service from Chicago to the Quad Cities it will have to build an interlocking and a connecting ramp on the BNSF main line at Wyanet to enable westbound passenger trains to transfer to the Iowa Interstate’s main line for the last 50 miles of the trip. IDOT also will have to upgrade the IAIS track for higher speeds and install block signals before passenger service can begin. The entire project is estimated to cost $60 million.

“Raising that kind of money would be very difficult if the state did not have an 80-per-cent match from the federal government,” Szabo said. “The Senate’s passage of S.294 raises a real possibility that serious money for passenger-rail improvements will become available.”

Szabo said the fight for passenger rail funding now moves to the House of Representatives, which could introduce the Senate bill or a new one of its own.

“When the appropriate time comes the union will ask its members to reach out to their congressmen and ask them to approve passenger-rail investment funding and Amtrak re-authorization,” he said. “The future of our jobs and the future of our nation’s mobility depend on Congress’s taking this historic step.”