May 29, 2003

CHICAGO (May 27)–In a whirlwind blitz of Capitol Hill last week, UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo joined with six other Illinois-based passenger-train activists and a lobbyist from the Illinois Department of Transportation to deliver a tantalizing message to the state’s congressional delegation: If Congress will provide funds to match $50 million already invested by the state, the Chicago-St. Louis rail route can become the national showcase for high-speed passenger-train development outside the Northeast Corridor.

“Illinois already has invested $50 million to upgrade 118 miles of track between Springfield and Mazonia,” Szabo said. “The work is finished. The Positive Train Control signaling will be ready in 18 months to two years. It will allow trains to run at 110 miles per hour.

“All we need now is the ability for IDOT to buy a fleet of modern rolling stock to kick off high-speed service between Chicago and St. Louis in two years,” Szabo said. “That would require the federal government to match Illinois’ $50 million with a grant of $200 million, the same 80/20 ratio the federal government uses when it matches state expenditures to build highways. Our group asked the Illinois delegation to ‘earmark’ that sum in the next transportation funding bill.”

How did the message go down with the Illinois delegation?

“We visited the offices of 18 of the 19 members of the Illinois delegation,” Szabo said. “Whether we talked with a legislator or a staff member, Republican or Democrat, all of them were enthusiastic and said they would support the idea.”

The same reaction came from Steve Stallmer, transportation policy aide to U.S. Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), who chairs the Railroad Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Stallmer told the working group his boss feels the new stretch of 110-mph hour track between Chicago and Springfield is the ideal site on which to showcase high-speed rail to the rest of the nation.

Known as the Midwest High Speed Rail Working Group, the lobbying team prepared for its Washington trip by journeying to Springfield May 8 to coordinate policy with IDOT Sec. Tim Martin. Martin readily agreed to the Working Group’s plan to secure federal funding and asked IDOT’s Washington representative, Colleen Corr, to join the team in making congressional visits on Capitol Hill May 20 and 21.

In addition to “jawboning” members of Congress about federal funding for the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, the team presented each member with a copy of a joint letter signed by the eight Illinois state senators representing districts along the corridor. The original letter requesting federal matching funds, drafted by State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman George P. Shadid (D-Peoria), had been hand-carried by UTU Ass’t. State Legislative Dir. John Burner from office to office in the State House until all the senators had affixed their signatures.

Working Group members who joined with Szabo included Kevin Brubaker, high-speed-rail project manager for the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center; Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Coalition; transportation and political consultant Stephen P. Schlickman; F.K. Plous, representing Chicago attorney and Amtrak Reform Council member James E. Coston; and two political figures from Macomb, Ill., current Mayor Mick Wisslead and outgoing Mayor Thomas Carper, who formerly chaired the Amtrak Mayors Advisory Committee.

“We made it clear that there is a project in Illinois that’s ready to go now,” said Harnish. “It’s inexpensive, and even before it’s finished it can showcase the high-speed rail concept to all of the states outside of the Northeast Corridor. Connecting Chicago and St. Louis with frequent high-speed trains will make all of the on-line cities between them more attractive places to do business.”

“We were pleased to learn that virtually the entire Illinois congressional delegation is supportive of our efforts to secure federal funding,” Brubaker said. “I don’t think they realized how much Illinois already has invested on its own. And I think they were very pleased to see that the environmentalists, the labor unions, IDOT and the high-speed-rail advocates all have agreed on a program.”

Plous said most of the legislators and their aides were surprised to learn just how ideally the Chicago-St. Louis corridor is suited for high-speed train operation.

“The rail distance between Chicago and St. Louis is 284 miles,” he said. “That’s exactly the same as the distance between Paris and Lyon, where the French have been running their TGV trains at 168 miles an hour since 1981. There are 15 TGV round trips a day between Lyon and downtown Paris and another 11 round trips between Lyon and the Paris airport. Yet the Chicago-St. Louis corridor has 35 percent more population than the Paris-Lyon corridor. Think how busy that line could be if we just had some trains to run on it.”

One problem did surface during the visits, however: Congress has not yet come to a consensus on which of three possible transportation funding bills it will consider this year–or whether it will even get around to passing a new transportation bill during the current session.

“In two days we were able to present a coherent plan for funding high-speed rail in Illinois,” said Schlickman, a veteran lobbyist. “The difficulty is, we have been unable to identify a vehicle [a transportation funding package in which the earmarked funds for Illinois can be included].

“But we have primed the delegation to be aware of this opportunity,” Schlickman said, “and it could come up this year or next year.”

Szabo agreed the trip had successfully “primed” the state’s key players in Congress.

“Sen. Peter Fitzgerald’s aide Robin Colwell spent more than 30 minutes with us in the Senator’s conference room and told us her boss was dedicated to seeing the entire Chicago-St. Louis route upgraded for high-speed service,” Szabo said. “Speaker [Dennis] Hastert’s policy-development aide, Bill Koetzel, brought us into his office in the attic of the Capitol building and wouldn’t let us go–we were in there nearly an hour. He said Chicago-St. Louis is exactly the kind of corridor that should be served by high-speed trains. Sen. Dick Durbin not only welcomed the Working Group but met with us in the historic Reception Room just off the Senate Chamber. Very few visitors ever are admitted to that area. ”

Particularly encouraging, Szabo said, was the response of U.S. Rep. William O. Lipinski (D-Chi.), the powerful ranking member of the Highways, Transit and Pipelines Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“Cong. Lipinski brought us into his private office, shut the door and spent more than 45 minutes helping us strategize on how to bring high-speed rail to Illinois,” Szabo said. “He agreed with us that Chicago-St. Louis is the place and the time is now.”