October 30, 2007

Ever wonder why the state of Illinois has so many highways and airports and so few good passenger trains and stations?

One reason is that highway funding goes back to 1919 and airport funding to 1946, while state-supported Amtrak service didn’t start until the 1970s and Chicago Metra commuter system wasn’t established until 1983. Rail is a late-comer, and rail improvements still get budgeted only after highways and airports take most of the funding.

But now we’ve got a chance to start changing the state’s transportation priorities as the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) seeks citizen comment on its 2007 Transportation Plan.

“In the month of November every rail worker and every rail advocate will have an opportunity to attend a local meeting and tell IDOT planners to include more rail improvements in the state’s long-range planning process,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “I am urging every UTU member who is off duty and available to attend the nearest meeting and make sure IDOT planners hear our rail message.”

That message is simple, Szabo said. It includes a bigger budget for more state-sponsored Amtrak frequencies, more state support for Metra’s operating and capital budget, and more state funding for critical rail infrastructure improvements.

“The success of the two new Amtrak trains between Chicago and St. Louis and the additional daily frequencies on the Chicago-Quincy and Chicago-Carbondale routes has made other Downstate communities aware of the need for passenger trains of their own,” Szabo said.

“Rockford, Freeport and Galena are clamoring for relief from overcrowded and unsafe highways.” he said. “They want their own Amtrak service, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have it. Peoria, a major manufacturing center with a population of more than 200,000, has no train service at all. Neither does Decatur, a manufacturing hub and college town with more than 100,000 people. Neither does the Quad Cities, an industrial powerhouse of 400,000 people that’s totally dependent on highways and sparse, expensive feeder-airline service.”

Szabo said members should urge IDOT not only to budget for Amtrak expansion to these additional Downstate cities, but to budget for a state-owned passenger-train fleet and for additional track capacity the freight railroads will need in order to handle more passenger trains.

IDOT said it will hold Plan Review meetings at the following times and locations:

Carterville, Nov. 13, 3 p.m.–5 p.m: John A Logan College, Workforce Development Building, Parking Lot B—Building H126, 700 Logan College Road.

Collinsville, Nov. 14, 9 a.m.—11 a.m: Illinois Department of Transportation, Regional Governor’s Conference Room, 1102 Eastport Plaza Drive.

Springfield, Nov. 15, 9 a.m.—11 a.m: Illinois Department of Transportation, Harry R. Hanley Building—Auditorium, 2300 S. Dirksen Parkway.

Bloomington-Normal, Nov. 15, 3 p.m.—5 p.m., Bloomington Airport, Conference Room, 3210 CIRCA Drive.

Chicago, Nov. 16, 9 a.m.—11 a.m: Illinois Department of Transportation, 300 W. Adams, 2nd floor.

Meetings are open to all, and reservations are not required, but IDOT asks that attendees phone or e-mail first so the Department will know how many guests to expect. Phone notices should be directed to Karyn Romano of Metro Strategies at (630) 617-4690. E-mails should go to kromano@metrostrategiesinc.com .

“The Illinois State Transportation Plan is a multi-year planning document that must be updated every two years,” Szabo said. “These meetings represent a real chance for railroaders to get their ideas registered and considered by the people who make the decisions. I urge every UTU member to attend and make the case for state rail investment.”