February 24, 2006

SPRINGFIELD (Feb. 24)-The Illinois House of Representatives voted today to allow the Illinois department of Transportation (IDOT) to buy or lease its own fleet of passenger-railroad locomotives and rolling stock.

The vote, which involved repealing a decades-old prohibition against state ownership of railroad equipment, passed the House by a vote of 112-0.

“This is very good news for our members and all advocates of stronger passenger-rail service in Illinois,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “It sends a strong signal that Illinois lawmakers are ‘getting the message’ about the need for a passenger-rail buildup in the state.”

Szabo said the measure, which was introduced in the House by State Rep. Dave Winters (R-Rockford) now has gone to the Senate, where it is being carried by Transportation Committee Chairman Tony Munoz (D-Chicago).

“It was sent to the Rules Committee, where it probably will be assigned to the Transportation Committee for a hearing,” he said.

Szabo noted that three other states–California, Washington and North Carolina–have owned their own passenger cars and locomotives for years, and those states have been the most aggressive in expanding service.

“It’s no secret that those states have been the most successful in delivering improved passenger service to their citizens,” he said. “As a rule, states that control their own fleet can deliver a higher standard of service than those that depend solely on equipment provided by Amtrak. It has allowed them to expand service – and grow our jobs – more rapidly. The state owns the equipment and Amtrak runs the trains.”

Szabo said the repeal of the prohibition against rolling-stock ownership does not represent a commitment on the part of the state to acquire a fleet but is simply a recognition that IDOT needs to have the option of acquiring equipment as demand for rail travel grows.

“There’s no guarantee Congress will provide Amtrak with the resources to meet all of the needs of all of the states that would like to have passenger-rail service,” Szabo said. “We don’t want Illinois to be left behind in the event of a possible equipment shortage, especially now that the General Assembly is developing a real appetite for a bigger passenger-rail program. We already have 40 of 60 senators who have agreed to co-sponsor funding for four additional daily Amtrak frequencies, and we have a majority in the House as well.”

Szabo said support for passenger rail also is growing vigorously among municipal officials, economic-development organizations and universities around the state.

“It’s become bi-partisan and statewide, and it’s coming from small towns and big cities alike,” he said. “Everybody who has responsibility for job growth, economic development, education and mobility now seems to realize that we have reached the limits of what highways and commercial aviation can do for the state’s economy. Further growth will depend on sound investment in our rail capability-both for passengers and freight.

“For the state, It’s about expanded service and improved mobility,” Szabo said. “For UTU, it’s about job growth and job security. Our elected officials are all catching the passenger-train bug.”