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Train advocates hopeful passenger service in Iowa's future

April 30, 2021 - 10:01 PM

IOWA CITY, Iowa - It’s not hard to get Gene Crosset talking about passenger rail, but don’t call him a “train nut.” He prefers the title “foamer.”

“It comes from the foaming at the mouth when we see trains,” Crosset said.

For decades, Crosset, a 78-year-old living in Davenport, has seen plans for an Iowa City-to-Chicago passenger rail line become a perennial conversation, only to disappear like a train heading into a tunnel.

The possibility exists again, after Amtrak released a map this month featuring new and enhanced lines, part of the $80 billion President Joe Biden designated for rail in his American Jobs Plan. The map included one bright blue line that dog-legged west from Chicago through Moline with a terminus in Iowa City.

Any foamer can tell you the idea is hardly new. The roadblock has been a lack of political will. That’s what derailed the last attempt a decade ago.

But the Iowa City Press-Citizen reports there are hints this time that Crosset and his ilk may yet see the day when the Windy City is again a train ride away for eastern Iowans.

In 1996, Midwestern states from Minnesota to Missouri, Iowa to Ohio, got to thinking about expanding the rail corridor for more efficient business and leisure travel between urban centres and smaller communities. For Iowa, this included a 79 mph passenger route line along the existing Iowa Interstate Railroad line running from Omaha to Rock Island, fed by a series of bus routes that could get passengers from Sioux City, Fort Dodge and Cedar Falls in on the action.

The most recent push for an Iowa passenger line found a champion in former Gov. Chet Culver. In October 2010, Culver, a Democrat, shook hands with then-U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a Republican, at the Iowa City Rail Depot off Wright Street. It was a cause for celebration as $230 million had been secured for building out a passenger rail service from Iowa City to Chicago.

“This will become an economic engine … all along the line,” Lahood said, pointing to the Iowa Interstate Railroad train on the tracks behind him, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported.

A 2011 Iowa Department of Transportation business plan estimated annual ridership would be 246,466, comparable to the existing line from Carbondale to Chicago (264,934) and well in excess of the Quincy-Chicago line (209,466). If Iowa political leaders wanted to get more ambitious, a 2013 study projected the ridership of a full Omaha to Chicago line through Iowa City at 1.9 million passenger trips per year. That would divert 1.3 million automobile trips, more than 300,000 bus rides and 41,000 plane tickets annually.

But by then, Culver was out and new Gov. Terry Branstad was skeptical about the long-term costs of the rail line. While the U.S. Department of Transportation would put up most of the upfront money to set up the line, Iowa and its local governments would be on the hook for operating it from then on out.

Amanda Martin, the freight and passenger policy co-ordinator for IDOT, said feasibility studies still suggest significant ridership, particularly for the Iowa City-Chicago length. Using the existing Interstate Railroad line means there wouldn’t be a need to seize land to connect depots. Furthermore, the Interstate line has a comparatively lower cargo load, meaning Amtrak would have less competition on the rails.

“Infrastructure is expensive, the funding and the costs associated with it. When you apply for federal funding, you need to have that matched funding,” Martin said.

The former Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Passenger Station still stands at 115 Wright St. in Iowa City. Built in 1898, it hasn’t been a jumping-off point for travellers heading to the Windy City in years. But a new Amtrak proposal has rekindled that possibility.

A veteran of the Culver administration, Jim Larew remains a passenger rail advocate. The Iowa City-based attorney said that, in order to get the project moving in 2021, there would need to be strong political support at the state and local levels.

In eastern Iowa, it appears to be there.

Iowa Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said the rail line would just be “modern infrastructure. It’s just keeping up with the times.”

Kaufmann told the Press-Citizen that, while it might be a tough sale, there is a way forward.

“There’s been a significant amount of legislative turnover since this was a big topic,” he said. “A reintroduction of the project and all of its merits would be helpful. Getting the governor on board would be promising.”

Iowa Rep. Mary Masher, D-Iowa City, said the payoff from the rail line should be apparent to all legislators, particularly if it can be extended all the way to the state’s largest city.

A car drives along Clinton Street past the former Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Passenger Station, Friday, April 16, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa. The station was built in 1898 and is located at 115 Wright Street.

“If you look at it as an economic engine for Iowa City and Davenport and even Des Moines, it creates destination points for people,” she said. “Suddenly a weekend in Des Moines or Iowa City is extremely affordable, as opposed to going all the way to Chicago. Entertainment. Bike trails. All those things we’ve been talking about making Iowa a destination point for people.”

Masher said she supported a passenger line going clear to Omaha if it meant getting the rest of the state behind the idea.

“I do believe there is a great deal of interest in getting something done. I think it is a matter of selling it. In order for us to have that vision, you have to be able to get the public buy-in and the Legislature on board,” she said.

For a state like Iowa, Larew said a passenger line could be a signature draw, changing not just the way people travel but how they live.

“It only seems like a heavy project with partisan differences on the front end,” Larew said.

“Because when we have it, we’ll wonder why it took us so long.”

News from © The Associated Press, 2021
The Associated Press

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