September 30, 2003

CHICAGO (Sept. 30)—UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo told a special panel convened by Gov. Rod Blagojevich that improvements to the state’s rail infrastructure will help grow Illinois’ economy more than improvements to highways and airports.

“Our transportation system has become grossly out of balance, with rail as the forgotten mode, much of its enormous economic potential unrealized,” Szabo told Governor Blagojevich’s Economic Summit 2003, held September 17-18 in Fairview Heights, just outside St. Louis.

Szabo told the conference, which was organized by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO), that both the state and federal governments have left rail out of the economic-planning process because railroad infrastructure is owned by private corporations while waterways, highways and airports are owned and funded respectively by the federal, state and municipal governments.

“Because of this differential ownership, government transportation planners assumed for more than a century that rail transportation could ‘take care of itself,’” Szabo said, adding, “We now know this is not true.”

What needs to happen now, Szabo said, is for public-sector planning officials to start planning rail-infrastructure improvements along with road, airport, transit and port improvements so that all modes can be linked into intermodal networks needed by business for speedier growth.

In addition to planning rail improvements, government needs to provide part of the funding as well, he said, citing the public/private initiative to invest $1.3 billion in track and signaling improvements to speed the flow of rail freight through the obsolete Chicago freight-interchange network.

“Illinois has more railroad connections, more railroad routes to more places, and more freight-train movements per day than any other state,” Szabo said, noting: “That’s not an item for trivia buffs. It means that every time rail transportation improves, Illinois benefits more than any other state.

“Strengthening our rail network thus may be the easiest way for Illinois to move to the front of the economic-development line,” Szabo said. “No state has so many opportunities to make rail work.”

But before that can happen, Szabo said, The Illinois Department of Transportation needs to upgrade its Bureau of Railroads to a Division of Railroads that reports directly to the Secretary of Transportation as the Highway, Airport and Transit divisions do.

“Division status would give rail parity with the other players,” he told the conference, adding that it also would allow IDOT to spearhead the development of stronger partnerships among communities, shippers, business and industry, large and small freight railroads, passenger-rail interests, local and regional planning agencies, civic groups, and rail unions.

Most important of all, Szabo said, creation of a Rail Division at IDOT would help economic planners unleash the full potential of rail technology at a time when the productivity of other transportation modes is sputtering.

“For too long we have dismissed railroad technology as obsolete or irrelevant,” he said. “It’s not. While highway, air and waterway transportation have reached the peak of their efficiency curves and begun to plateau, rail transportation remains the one mobility technology from which decisively higher levels of productivity can be unleashed in return for relatively modest levels of public and private investment.”