September 30, 2003

CHICAGO (Sept. 29)—One hundred nineteen mayors and other elected municipal officials from all corners of the state have signed a letter to Gov. Rod Blagojevich asking that additional state and federal funding be provided to finance a buildup of intercity passenger-train service throughout Illinois.

The mayors’ petition said top priority should be completion of the Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis track-and-signal upgrades, followed by an increase in the number of daily Chicago-St. Louis round trips from the current three to five.

“Economic development and increased mobility were the reasons the mayors cited for wanting more train service,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “They said they want better connections to neighboring cities and to Chicago because business travelers are having an increasingly difficult time with the highway and airline systems.”

The letter urged the governor to press Congress to match the $100 million already invested by the state in the Chicago-St. Louis line and to seek state funding for the additional two round trips.

The signatures were collected September 19th and 20th when the Illinois Municipal League held its fall meeting at the Chicago Hilton & Towers. Szabo served as one of four volunteers who helped collect the signatures in the exhibit hall at a booth sponsored by the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC).

“It was like Homecoming for me,” Szabo said. “I got to see most of the mayors I used to work with when I was mayor of Riverdale, and nearly all of them signed the petition. The support for passenger rail for ever corner of our state is incredibly strong.”

Joining Szabo and ELPC staffers Kevin Brubaker and Jesse Auerbach was Thomas C. Carper, retired mayor of Macomb and former chairman of the Amtrak Mayors Council.

“I think it’s the potential for economic development in their communities that influenced so many mayors to sign the letter,” Carper said. “If a town is within the sphere of influence of Chicago it needs to be able to get business travelers into Chicago quickly and conveniently,” he explained.

That’s not happening now, said Carper, whose city is served once daily in each direction by Amtrak’s Chicago-Quincy Illinois Zephyr.

“The highways are becoming congested and unreliable,” he said. “Some mornings you can get from Plano or Sandwich or Champaign into Chicago in time for a day of business—but then on other days you hit the suburbs and traffic is backed up for miles. If those towns had several trains a day people could get back and forth at convenient hours.

“Plus you can work and relax on a train,” Carper said. “You use your time more productively. If you’re at the wheel of a car all you can do is drive. You can’t read. You can’t eat. You can’t relax with a drink.”

ELPC Coordinator of Special Events Jesse Auerbach said a number of mayors who visited the booth also complained about poor airline service.

“Their air service is iffy,” Auerbach said. “A carrier will come in and try to serve a smaller town for a while, but then it withdraws because the route isn’t profitable.”

But several mayors of towns that already have Amtrak service told volunteers at the ELPC booth that current service levels are inadequate.

“They said Amtrak’s record on dependability is not good,” Auerbach said.

Szabo said most of the mayors who criticized Amtrak understood that much of the carrier’s service problem has to do with a lack of federal funding and inadequate track and signal capacity.

“It’s hard to run fast, frequent passenger trains over a 19th-century railroad that’s congested with freight trains,” he said. “That’s why the letter the mayors signed stressed the importance of finishing the capacity improvements on the Chicago-St. Louis main line. The mayors came from every corner of the state, but they are supporting the Chicago-St. Louis buildout first. They know that once this route opens, its success will demonstrate the viability of a passenger-train system reaching into other parts of the state and hooking up with their own communities.”

Szabo said cities such as Danville, Rockford, Decatur, Peoria and the Quad Cities, ultimately will get their first passenger rail service since the 1960s, while cities that already have one train a day will get multiple frequencies timed to the needs of business travelers.

“We should be very proud of the mayors and municipal officials of this state,” Szabo said. “The grassroots support is incredibly strong. The public is way out in front of Congress and the Bush administration in grasping the economic importance of a strong regional passenger-train system.

“Our senior senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, understands the importance of passenger trains,” Szabo said, “but too many federal officials are still behind the curve. I would hope that these 119 grass-roots signatures will start changing minds at the top.”