July 3, 2006

ROCKFORD (July 3)—Illinois’ senior U.S. senator told passenger-rail advocates here he agrees their city is ready for passenger-rail service and will urge his colleagues to support it.

“Rockford is the state of Illinois’ second-largest metropolitan area,” Durbin told more than 100 rail advocates who gathered at Rockford International Airport to hear him and other state and local officials discuss plans for a service startup. “This region is ripe for an expansion of passenger rail service.” Growing tourism and business travel, rising gasoline prices and deteriorating highway conditions were among the factors he said would drive expansion of rail service.

“Residents of this region want to be able to take a quick trip to Chicago by rail, and they’d also like to be able to tap into Amtrak’s network via its Midwestern hub,” the two-term Democratic senator said. “Similarly, Chicagoans would like the opportunity to travel to Galena—the state’s second-most-popular tourist destination—by rail.”

Durbin, whose office arranged the meeting at the request of local officials, slated a panel of speakers that included U.S. Congressman Don Mansullo (R-Egan), Amtrak Senior VP-Government Affairs Joseph McHugh, Illinois Secrtary of Transportation Tim Martin, and UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo.

“We are excited about the possibility of returning Amtrak service to Rockford and Galena,” Szabo said, noting that every Amtrak route in Illinois has experienced double-digit growth in the last two years and the motor-fuel prices already are provoking demands that other Illinois cities be linked up to the state’s still skeletal passenger-rail network. In fact, Szabo said, planners should already be looking beyond the state lines.

“Any new service to Rockford should be part of a broad, 9-state Midwest plan that connects all of the principal cities in the Midwest with a hub in Chicago,” he said, noting that passenger-rail activists must advocate not just for the whole system but for all of the funding programs needed to support it.

“Our local leaders must keep talking to their state and federal officials to ensure adequate funding at the national level for Amtrak, an 80/20 federal/state matching-fund program for passenger-rail capital investments, and a budget to mitigate congestion on the freight railroads that passenger trains must use,” Szabo said.

Nor can the job be done by passenger-rail advocates alone, Szabo said, noting that the Illinois General Assembly’s recent decision to double the state’s Amtrak funding and start up four new daily frequencies came only after passenger-rail advocates joined hands to form a “broad coalition” with other interest groups.

“Our allies included the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, 30 local chambers of commerce, 12 university presidents and 300 municipal officials from communities all around the state,” Szabo said. “Our vision includes not only growing the three existing passenger-rail corridors in Illinois, but also opening new service to Rockford and the Quad Cities,”

Sec. Martin agreed, saying, “It was a bi-partisan effort taking place throughout the state that doubled our subsidy for Amtrak in Illinois. That shows you what happens when people get together for a common purpose.”

Durbin cautioned, however, noted that Congress cannot consider helping with capital funding until Rockford officials decide which route they want to use to connect their city with Chicago. Currently, three different routes, including the former Illinois Central Railroad “Black Hawk Route,” are under consideration, each with its own set of strong points and weak points and each with a different set of advocates.

“I sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and each year we sort through hundreds and hundreds of applications for transportation infrastructure funding,” Durbin said. “The first applications we sweep off the table are the ones where there’s no local consensus. So the people of Rockford have to decide which route they want to invest in.”

Amtrak VP McHugh said he believes that consensus will develop.

“We get a lot of requests from a lot of communities, but Illinois has proved it’s a leader,” he said. “The question is not ‘Can we do it?’ The question is, “What do we need to get it done?’”