June 14, 2004

CHICAGO (June 14)—The UTU Illinois Legislative Board has become one of four passenger-rail advocacy groups collaborating on a program to educate the Illinois General Assembly on the need for additional Amtrak service in the state.

The ad hoc group kicked off its work May 27 in Springfield by briefing eight legislators on the need for additional funding to pay for two more daily Amtrak round trips between Chicago and St. Louis, with a second daily frequency to be added to the current once-a-day round trip in the Chicago-Carbondale and Chicago-Quincy corridors.

That briefing followed an earlier outreach by six state senators who sent a May 12 letter to Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The senators asked the governor, along with Transportation Secretary Tim Martin, Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson and Senate President Emil Jones, Jr., for an additional $5 million be set aside in the state budget to sponsor two more Chicago-St. Louis trains.

“What we are hoping for is that at some point we could establish a passenger-train caucus in the General Assembly,” said Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Ass’n. “We need $5 million to increase the frequencies to St. Louis, and we need another $5 million to add a second daily frequency to Quincy and to Carbondale. That requires that passenger trains have ‘champions’ in the legislature.”

UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo said the briefing and letter marked “a humble beginning but a good beginning” toward the possibility of establishing a legislative caucus to support a well-developed state passenger-train network.

“The briefing went on for an hour and a half, which shows there is serious interest among the House and Senate members in having a stronger passenger-train operation in the state,” Szabo said. “And one of the most positive elements of what we’re seeing is the bi-partisan and bi-chamber character of passenger-train interest in the General Assembly.”

Signatories to the May 12 letter senators’ letter to the governor included two Republicans: Bill Brady of Bloomington and Larry Bomke of Springfield; and four Democrats: James Claybourne of East St. Louis, Deanna Demuzio of Carlinville, William Haine of Alton and Larry Walsh of Joliet.

The seven state representatives at the May 27 briefing included four Republicans: Rich Myers of Macomb; Paul Froelich of Schaumburg; Dave Winters of Rockford and Don Moffitt of Galesburg; and three Democrats: Julie Hamos of Winnetka; Lovanna Jones of Chicago and Elaine Nekritz of Des Plaines. Republican Senator John Jones of Carbondale was also in attendance.

Advocates who briefed the House and Senate members included Harnish, UTU Ass’t. Legislative Director John Burner, Environmental Law & Policy Center lobbyist Al Grosball and Steve Schlickman of Business Leaders for Transportation.

“They’ve all got the picture,” Szabo said. “They understand the importance of having more passenger-train frequencies in the state.”

On May 30, Rep. Moffitt introduced House Resolution 1039 calling upon the state auditor to analyze whether the state could save money on its travel costs if state employees were able to use passenger trains instead of airlines and private autos when they travel on state business. The May 12 senators’ letter to the governor raised the same point, saying:

“There is a large amount of state employee travel between Springfield and Chicago. The cost of an employee round trip by car is $148.50 (at the current IRS calculation for auto reimbursement of 0.375 cents per mile) versus $32 on Amtrak. The cost of flights is significantly higher. If state employees were directed to use the train instead of driving or flying between Chicago and Springfield, the State’s cost of the improved service would potentially be offset by reduced travel expense.”

The senators’ letter also pointed out that an additional two frequencies would make the train more attractive to State employees between Chicago and Springfield, as well as to Downstate residents headed for tourist attractions in Chicago and Chicagoans interested in visiting the new Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield.

“There is no doubt that passenger trains can become an important component of the whole suite of mobility services that state government makes available to its citizens, visitors and businesses,” Szabo said, noting that the California Department of Transportation has released figures showing that its 58 daily state-sponsored passenger trains just turned in their best May performance in history.

“California now is operating three different passenger-rail corridors, and all of them have become so essential to personal mobility and business travel that the state has no choice but to keep expanding them as it once did with highways and airports,” Szabo said.

Szabo said figures released today by CalTrans show that in May, 2004, ridership on its 12 daily Capitol Corridor trains between Oakland and Sacramento rose 5.5 per cent over a year earlier, while ridership on the six daily Oakland-Bakersfield San Joaquin trains rose 3.8 per cent and on the Santa-Barbara-Los Angeles-San Diego Pacific Surfliners—17.2 per cent.

“The Surfliners alone carried nearly 225,000 passengers in the month of May,” Szabo said. “The lesson is clear: State-sponsored passenger trains can become a major travel option in a balanced transportation system. Illinois needs to move ahead on this issue.”