July 25, 2007

CHICAGO (July 25)—State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), who is rapidly emerging as one of the Illinois General Assembly’s most aggressive champions of a Midwest passenger-rail buildup, is calling for a state-federal partnership to get the buildup rolling.

The third-term representative says she wants the buildup to begin before fast-growing highway congestion and air-travel dysfunction overwhelm the Midwest’s frail train system with angry and frustrated travelers.

“Currently, passenger rail is the only mode of transportation not supported in part by federal funding,” Nekritz testified before the U.S. House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee’s Railroad Subcommittee in Washington June 26. “The future of passenger rail in Illinois and throughout the Midwest hinges on a strong funding partnership between federal, state and local agencies.”

Nekritz, who spearheaded the establishment of a new Illinois House Rail Committee and last January became its first chairman, urged the subcommittee to support S. 294, the U.S. Senate’s Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2007. The bill would re-authorize Amtrak for five years and provide millions of dollars in federal matching funds to states willing to participate in funding the 110-mph, nine-state Midwest Regional Rail System

Nekritz, who also serves as one of Illinois’ commissioners on the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, told the subcommittee federal matching funds are needed urgently to help states like Illinois handle fast-growing rail ridership. She told the subcommittee states receive federal matching grants when they fund highway or airport expansions, but when they build intercity rail infrastructure or fund passenger train startups state governments are forced to rely on their own resources.

Nekritz reminded the subcommittee that in May 2006 the Illinois General Assembly boldly increased its annual spending for Amtrak corridor service from $12 million to $25 million, using its own taxpayers’ money The additional $13 million was used to increase state-sponsored Amtrak round trips from three a day to seven starting October 30.

“In the first six months ridership went up dramatically,” she told the subcommittee. “We saw increases ranging from 60 per cent on the Quincy line to 100 percent growth on the St. Louis line. No one could have anticipated the response from riders. Travelers are very upset about highway congestion and the deterioration of airline service. They’re looking for an alternative.”

But Nekritz told Congress she sees trouble ahead if the surge of new riders continues to be frustrated by late trains, obsolete rolling stock and a congested freight-railroad infrastructure unable to accommodate more frequencies or higher speeds. She says the states simply lack the funds to build their way out of those problems without federal help.

“Without adequate funding, Illinois will have a difficult time holding onto recent gains in ridership,” she said. “I encourage the House and Senate to support the higher Senate-proposed funding of Amtrak at $1.78 billion.

She also urged the subcommittee to support a matching-grant program that would enable states to qualify for federal funds whenever they budget their own taxpayers’ money for freight and passenger rail improvements.

“A state/federal match would be great,” Nekritz told ‘Hot Topics’ in an exclusive interview. “Number one—it would enable us to improve the service with better rolling stock and additional infrastructure to raise on-time performance. And number two—it would enable us to expand the service by adding frequencies and opening new routes.”

Nekritz told “Hot Topics” that federal matching grants need to come soon because Illinois’ passenger-rail expansion could be halted—or even cut back—if growing passenger-train traffic ends up degrading freight service.

“Not many people realize it, but IDOT’s contracts with the freight railroads allow the passenger trains to be discontinued if the carriers can demonstrate they are having a negative impact on freight-train operations and the state fails to mitigate that negative impact,” she said. “And it looks like it’s going in that direction. The railroads have to prove a negative effect. BNSF just gave us their tentative estimate of what it would take to keep IDOT’s passenger trains from delaying BNSF’s freight trains.”

Nekritz said the state’s other two Amtrak host railroads, Canadian National and Union Pacific, are expected to submit estimated budgets for their infrastructure-upgrade needs by December.

“If and when we do a capital bill we have to devote some resources to that,” she said.

“Elaine is rapidly becoming a strong leader for passenger rail,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo, who has testified frequently before her committee. “She has done a remarkable job of getting to the bottom of the state’s transportation needs and devising practical legislative solutions.

“But she also realizes that the state cannot solve its rail problems alone any more than it solved its highway or airport problems alone,” he said. “Federal matching funds are absolutely essential to getting the job done for all three modes and for improving the on-time performance of our passenger trains.”

Nekritz told “Hot Topics” she did not originally intend to become involved in rail issues when she was first elected.

“I got into it because of grade crossings,” she said. “My district office is in Des Plaines, which has nearly 35 grade crossings, and as soon as I took office I started hearing complaints about blocked crossings. When I investigated I found that the after many years of decline the railroads were becoming popular again, for both freight and passenger transportation.”

Nekritz said that as she investigated further she learned that rail was booming because it offered real solutions to shippers and travelers and that it was more energy-efficient and less polluting than any other mode of transportation.

“The more I got into it and started learning things, the more I realized that both freight and passenger railroading were facing tremendous development, and I felt both needed a champion,” she said.

Since then, Nekritz has traveled on high-speed passenger trains in Britain and France and has observed the construction of a new high-speed line in China. Ultimately, she’d like to see such trains running in the Midwest.

“But right now we have to crawl before we learn to walk,” she said. “We’ve got to learn how to keep the trains moving at a steady 79 miles per hour. When the people see that the trains are running on time they will come out in greater and greater numbers. I think the people are way ahead of the politicians on this.”

“That’s Elaine,” Szabo said: “She starts out studying a problem and inside it she finds an opportunity. Our state is very lucky to have such a determined and well informed advocate in charge of rail policy in its legislature.”