February 28, 2006

SPRINGFIELD (Feb. 28)—Members of the House Mass Transit Committee listened carefully and liked what they heard today as mayors, university presidents, business leaders, organized labor and smart-transportation advocates explained why the state needs to add $18 million to its annual passenger-rail budget and sponsor four new trains.

UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo was the lead-off speaker as the first of four advocacy panels faced the Committee chaired by State Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston).

“We had Jason Keller of the AFL-CIO, Kevin Brubaker of the Environmental Law & Policy Center and Rick Harnish of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association with us to lay down the case for more passenger trains,” Szabo said.

“The message was about jobs, about growing the state’s economy, about giving travelers a way to avoid traffic congestion, high gasoline prices and inadequate airline service when traveling to Downstate points.”

But some of the “most eloquent” testimony, Szabo said, came from former congressman and gubernatorial candidate Glenn Poshard, who now serves as president of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

“Glenn said he frequently has to travel from Carbondale to Chicago on business” Szabo said. “But the only way he can get there in time for a morning meeting is to get up at 2 a.m. so he can catch Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, which stops in Carbondale at 3:16 a.m. “The only state-sponsored train doesn’t leave Carbondale until 4 in the afternoon.”

If the state agrees to increase funding for passenger-rail support, however, Carbondale would get a second train leaving early in the morning and reaching Chicago before noon.

“Glenn said that second train would really help SIU to raise the quality of its faculty,” Szabo said. “World-class professors and researchers will agree to teach at a small-town school only if it has convenient access to the cultural attractions and academic colleagues found in a big city like Chicago. More train service also would help SIU attract more students. The school is popular with students from working-class families, but many of these students cannot afford to keep a car at school and need train service to keep in touch with their families.”

Those themes were echoed by Al Goldfarb, president of Western Illinois University at Macomb. Goldberg told the Transit Committee Amtrak’s current once-a-day frequency between Chicago and Quincy stifles travel opportunities for his students. Currently, students seeking to spend the weekend with their families back in Chicago cannot leave by train until Saturday morning because there is no evening departure. Goldfarb also said the lack of a second train to Chicago is causing WIU the same kinds of faculty-recruitment problems that Poshard is suffering at SIU.

A panel of mayors and mayor representatives said inadequate train service is having the same effect on their efforts to build local economies as it has on the universities: Long, tiring drives on congested highways and unreliable and expensive Downstate airline service have made their locations problematic for tourists and for companies seeking a new plant or office location.

“Mayor John Spring of Quincy explained that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to attract new industry without adequate options for business travelers,” Szabo said. “ And Jim Donaldson, who represented Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin, said two more frequencies on the Chicago-St. Louis line would really help Springfield attract more visitors to the new Abraham Lincoln Museum. Matt Davidson of the Illinois Municipal League reported that nearly 300 of the state’s mayors and other municipal officials now have signed a petition for additional passenger-train frequencies.”

A fourth panel, made up of chambers of commerce from Chicago, Macomb and Springfield, confirmed that poor transportation is hurting local business development and asked the Committee to approve the $18-million budget increase and the four proposed additional frequencies.

Said Rep. Hamos: “As both Chair of the Mass Transit Committee and a supporter of Amtrak, I was impressed with the broad coalition of advocates, including mayors, college presidents, business leaders and environmentalists who came out to testify for increased state support to expand service.”

Szabo confirmed that the outpouring of support was unprecedented.

“Longtime state government observers say they’ve never before seen this level of enthusiasm and willingness to work for better train service,” Szabo said. “We used to get together in Springfield to try to save trains that were being proposed for elimination. That’s over. We’re now in expansion mode, and it looks as if the General Assembly is going there too. Everyone is climbing aboard this train and it’s about to leave the station.”