Amtrak's college connections emphasized

Amtrak's college connections emphasized

SPRINGFIELD –Universities, mayors and the rail industry are teaming up to ask the state for money to add trains between Chicago and Illinois college towns like Champaign-Urbana, Quincy, Bloomington and Carbondale.

Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard said college students made up nearly a third of the 3 million passengers on Illinois trains last year and many of the busiest Amtrak stations are in college towns.

"For many students, the train is their sole transportation back and forth," he said.

The governor's proposed state budget for the year beginning July 1 would maintain the state's operating support for Amtrak at the current level of $12.1 million, which helps maintain routes from: Chicago to Milwaukee; Chicago to Quincy; Chicago to St. Louis through Bloomington and Springfield; and Chicago to Carbondale through Champaign-Urbana.

An additional $18 million would add an extra train each day through Champaign-Urbana and along the Chicago to Quincy route, plus two more daily round-trips from Chicago to St. Louis.

"By increasing these frequencies, travel options increase exponentially," said Joseph Szabo, state legislative director for the United Transportation Union. "It's more likely that you can make that train meet your schedule."

Ridership, which is already on the rise, would increase as a result, he said.

According to the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, the increased train trips would boost tourism and business travel, create jobs, help the environment, ease traffic congestion and save money on state employee travel.

Nearly 90 state representatives have agreed to co-sponsor HB 4978, which would give Amtrak the extra funding. The sponsors include state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana, state Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, state Rep. Shane Cultra, R-Onarga and state Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet. In the state Senate, 42 of the 59 members have signed on to a similar bill, including state Sen. Rick Winkel, R-Urbana.

But it remains to be seen if the money will make it into the final budget package.

Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Matt Vanover said the state has maintained its support for Amtrak at the $12 million level in recent years, even as other areas of state government have seen budget cuts.

"I think that says a lot about how important the governor feels regular rail passenger service is," Vanover said.

But the money to increase train service would have to come from the state's General Revenue Fund, which also pays for important public safety, education and health care needs, he said.

"If this group or legislators would like to increase funding," Vanover said, "I think we would be willing to listen as long as they would tell us from where the additional funding would come."

Members of the House mass transit committee suggested at a hearing on Tuesday that the investment in Amtrak would pay for itself through increased tourism dollars and reduced state travel costs.

"We are spending a lot, but we can save a lot," said state Rep. Julie Hamos, D-Evanston.

State Rep. Kathleen Ryg, D-Vernon Hills, said the state's round-trip cost for her to take the train to Springfield for session was $34, but the mileage reimbursement check she gets for driving the same route is $195.80.

A recent state audit showed that the majority of state and university employees who used Amtrak for work-related travel rated their experience as excellent or good, but late trains and inconvenient departure and arrival times made other transportation options more attractive. Amtrak was used for only about 12 percent of the trips the audit examined between Chicago and the following cities: Bloomington, Macomb, Carbondale, Champaign-Urbana and Springfield. That's compared to 66 percent by state, personal or rental vehicle and 18 percent by state or commercial plane. About 4 percent of the trips were through other methods, such as bus or carpooling.

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Location (2):Springfield, State