Cities ask legislators for funds for rail projects

SPRINGFIELD — Members of a congressional subcommittee heard plenty of ideas Tuesday for spending money on railroad projects in Illinois, but few suggestions for where the money would come from.

The U.S. House Transportation Committee's subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials held a two-hour hearing Tuesday at the Illinois Statehouse. Among those attending were Republican Reps. Rodney Davis of Illinois and Jeff Denham of California, along with Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida.

They heard from the mayors of Champaign, Decatur and Springfield, plus a number of business leaders, a railroad company executive and the director of the railroad engineering program at the University of Illinois.

"We want private industry, where there are opportunities for economic development along rail lines, to step up and work with us so that we can get the biggest bang for our buck nationally," Denham said.

"We know we've got to have a revenue stream," added Davis, "and we're actually utilizing this roundtable that Chairman Denham brought to us to get ideas on how to solve those problems."

But, he acknowledged, "we didn't" hear any new ideas for revenue.

"But as you saw when we ended the hearing, I said I wanted to hear what it is you think is going to work. That's the message we need to send back to them," Davis said.

Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said Champaign-Urbana needs both new equipment and expanded service on its Amtrak routes, plus a government commitment to high-speed rail on the Chicago-Carbondale corridor.

"We have Amtrak cars that are overloaded with students," he said. "We need new equipment. We need new lines. We need to be able to get to Chicago. We need to be able to get to Indianapolis."

He said that developers and business executives say that high-speed rail to Champaign-Urbana "would be a game-changer" and that "it could be the infrastructural equivalent of the Internet."

Springfield Mayor Mike Houston pleaded for federal aid to consolidate three north-south rail lines and complete a high-speed-rail corridor.

"The economic future of Springfield is riding on a rail and an upgraded transportation future," he said.

"It is imperative that the federal government provide the resources for the Illinois Department of Transportation to compete for grants to complete the Chicago-St. Louis line, ensuring top-notch reliability and reducing travel time to less than four hours," he said.

Decatur City Manager Ryan McCrady said his city needs passenger rail service to go with its booming freight-rail system.

"We'd be very interested in some investment to help us get our citizens access to passenger rail," he said. "It would help our university students who attend Millikin University and also help our major employers in Decatur who have employees that need to access international destinations, either through rail or through the international airports in our region."

Mark Ballard, president of BankChampaign and chairman of Champaign County First, said Amtrak ridership on Chicago-Carbondale passenger trains increased by 139 percent in six years, and that the community wants more train service.

"An additional passenger train would greatly facilitate the ability of business and education leaders to schedule meetings and appointments in Chicago through a more efficient travel mode than by auto," he said.

Christopher Barkan, director of the railroad engineering program at the UI, told the panel that the federal, state and local governments need to work together "in creative new ways" on multimodal passenger transportation systems.

"It is critically important," he added, "that such investments and expanded operations do not negatively affect the freight-rail system. The U.S. benefits tremendously from the safety, economical and environmental benefits of having the best freight-rail system in the world, and the development of new passenger rail services — whether they be commuter, conventional intercity or high-speed rail — should not jeopardize the success of this system nor inhibit its further growth."

Manufacturing and agricultural, both major economic sectors in Illinois, "are critically dependent on reliable, economical rail transport," he said.

Barkan called on the federal government to leave freight railroads "with as little regulatory burden as feasible" and "reduce subsidies to less efficient competitors."

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