November 23, 2005

CHICAGO (Nov. 23)—The master organization of unions representing 1 million Illinois workers has become the latest member of a coalition urging the state to increase its annual funding for passenger trains and give all of the state’s passenger-rail routes at least two round trips per day.

Illinois AFL-CIO President Margaret Blackshere told UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo that her organization would adopt the passenger-train buildup as part of its agenda and would press for a funding increase when the AFL-CIO meets with the leaders of the General Assembly and the governor’s office regarding transportation funding early next year.

“Traditionally, the AFL-CIO is a key player when budget issues or large funding packages are negotiated at the state level,” Szabo said. “In next year’s discussions they will make growing the intercity passenger-rail network part of their agenda.”

Szabo said Blackshere agreed to have the AFL-CIO “adopt” intercity passenger rail as one of its priorities after she met with Szabo and two other representatives of the state’s growing pro-train coalition, Richard F. Harnish of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association and Joseph Shacter of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

“We briefed her November 22 on the 9-state Midwest High Speed Rail Initiative,” Szabo said. “Then we narrowed the Initiative down to the first phases of the buildup proposed for Illinois—a second daily round trip on the Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale route, a second daily round trip on the Chicago-Galesburg-Quincy route and two additional round trips on the Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis route.”

“We also briefed her on the longer-range plans to improve the tracks and signals so that passenger-rail service can be extended to the Quad Cities,” Szabo said, “and we showed her the Illinois Municipal League’s petition for a rail buildup, which now has nearly 300 signatures from mayors and other city officials across the state. To say that she was impressed would be an understatement.”

Blackshere told “Hot Topics” the AFL-CIO is backing the rail buildup because “It’s all about jobs—the construction jobs, the maintenance jobs, the operating jobs that go with an increased number of trains and tracks and stations.”

But she also cited the cost savings to state government when officials traveling on state business can reach their assignments by train rather than using their own cars and billing the state 39.5 cents per mile. She also said the rail buildup will be good for the state university system.

“Many of our members are instructors at the state universities who have to travel in their work,” she said. “And large numbers of our members work in support functions at those universities as well. Strong rail service serving college towns is an important resource. Many of our members have children attending the state universities.”

Szabo said the importance of having the state AFL-CIO leadership behind the passenger-rail buildup “cannot be overestimated.”

“The AFL-CIO is a very large and respected organization which is very skilled in helping state government establish its priorities,” he said.

“The AFL-CIO also is one of the few organizations that represents Chicago-area interests and Downstate interests in balance. They are statewide and they are always at the table when the governor and the General Assembly leadership try to allocate funding in tough budget talks.

“Supporting passenger rail thus is something of a natural for them, because it’s the only form of transit that links Downstate with Chicago. I couldn’t be more pleased to have the AFL-CIO endorse our efforts to expand passenger rail operations in our state.”