November 15, 2006

SPRINGFIELD (Nov. 15)—A bill designed to make Illinois a full voting member of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact has passed the Illinois House of Representatives unanimously.

House Bill 4344 is expected to be introduced in the Senate tomorrow and to be heard in Committee after Thanksgiving before being sent to the Senate floor for a vote.

“Getting Illinois into the Midwest passenger rail compact has been on the UTU’s agenda for some time,” said Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo.

“We withheld our ‘final push’ until we had disposed of our first priority, which was to get state funding for four more Amtrak trains,” Szabo said.

“But now that the new Illinois trains are running and the public is riding them, we felt the time had come to focus on longer-range plans, including the buildup of a multi-state corridor-train system with its hub at Chicago.

“From here on out, the number of trains serving Illinois will to a great extent depend on the willingness of our neighboring states to fund their share of interstate trains that pass through Illinois on the way to Chicago” he said.

The Compact is about solidarity, Szabo explained.

“It combines the strengths of all the Midwestern states—sort of like a labor union combining the strength of all its members—to win federal matching funds so we can build up our passenger rail networks across the entire region,” he said. “We expect to be lobbying particularly hard in Washington for legislation such as Sen. Lott’s S.B. 1516. It offers exactly that kind of funding.”

The Compact has formally existed since 2000, when the legislatures of Indiana, Minnesota and Missouri voted to establish and fund the organization. Nebraska and Ohio joined in 2001 and 2002, respectively, and Michigan joined this year.

“Illinois was slow to join because the Ryan administration had concerns about power-sharing with other states,” Szabo said. “But now that Gov. Blagojevich and the General Assembly have seen the explosive potential of passenger trains and voted to double the state’s passenger-rail budget, the last barriers to acceptance have fallen.”

That’s important, Szabo said, because the regional passenger-rail network the Compact is proposing centers on Chicago.

“Without Chicago and Illinois, the network doesn’t work,” he said. “Amtrak already calls its state-supported Midwestern trains the ‘Chicago Hub Service.’ Chicago is the only place on the map where all of the lines meet and all passengers can connect with other trains. Chicago Union Station is like O’Hare Airport. It’s the hub where all the spokes connect.”

In addition, Szabo said, many of the trains slated to originate in neighboring states must traverse many miles of Illinois, and stop in many Illinois cities, on their way to Chicago.

“Someday trains planned and financed with the aid of the Compact will originate in places like Omaha, Des Moines, Kansas City and St. Louis,” he said. “But on their way here they will serve dozens of important Illinois communities. As soon as they cross the state line they will effectively become ‘Illinois trains.’ That’s the beauty of an interstate compact.”

“Passenger rail is predominately a multi-state pursuit and the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact brings a unified voice to multi-state advocacy,” said Laura Kliewer, who serves as director of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, the organization created to carry out the compact’s objectives.

“Illinois’ becoming a member of the compact is a linchpin to our regional voice,” Kliewer said. “Today’s vote in the House is a big deal for us. It’s very encouraging, especially after seeing how effective Illinois passenger-rail advocates have become in their own state.”

Kliewer said it is critical to have state leaders advocating for the federal funding commitment required to make these initiatives a reality.

“By partnering with the federal government the Midwest can become the nation’s leader in offering viable, economically feasible and efficient passenger rail travel,” she said. “A united Compact with Illinois as a member enables us to move the ball more frequently and effectively when we hit Capitol Hill to tell our story to our elected officials.”