March 31, 2006

SPRINGFIELD (March 31)–By a vote of 57-0 the State Senate voted to allow the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) to buy or lease rolling stock for its state-supported passenger-train program.

Today‘s Senate action follows a Feb. 24 vote in the House, where House Bill 5220 passed by a vote of 112-0 after being introduced by State Rep. David Winters (R-Rockford). The measure was sponsored in the Senate by Transportation Committee Chairman Tony Munoz (D-Chicago) and now goes to Gov. Rod Blagojevich to be signed into law.

“The UTU supported H.B. 5220 because its passage could strengthen the state’s hand in its effort to grow a bigger and more effective passenger-train program,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “This doesn’t mean the state has any intention of going out and buying a fleet of passenger cars or locomotives at this time, but it does give the state the option of doing so in the future.”

Szabo noted that the three states with the strongest record of supporting passenger trains–California, Washington and North Carolina–all own passenger cars and locomotives.

“None of those states operates its trains totally with its own rolling stock,” Szabo said. “Even California, which owns 88 passenger cars and 17 locomotives, still relies on Amtrak for about half of its equipment. But California’s ownership of a partial fleet makes it easier for them to ramp up service to meet ridership demand, and we think it’s a good idea for Illinois to have that kind of option as well.”

Szabo noted that a majority of legislators in both houses of the Illinois General Assembly have co-sponsored a measure to beef up the state’s annual train-operating budget from $12.1 million to $30 million so the state can hire Amtrak to run two more daily frequencies between Chicago and St. Louis and an additional frequency on both the Chicago-Quincy and Chicago-Carbondale corridor.

“There is some concern that the Bush administration’s underfunding of Amtrak may make it difficult for Amtrak to fit out a sufficient number of idled cars to protect the new frequencies,” Szabo said. “And it’s likely that Wisconsin and Pennsylvania will soon approach Amtrak with their own demands for additional frequencies.

“So Illinois needs to keep its options open to make sure a potential rolling-stock shortage does not delay the startup of train services requested by so many Downstate mayors, chambers of commerce and universities. The people of Illinois need modern mobility. Letting IDOT have the right to accumulate its own fleet is just one more tool to make sure those trains run.”