CHAMPAIGN — Champaign County needs to pursue both a high-speed rail line and improved air service, the CEO of the county's economic development group says.
John Dimit said a 220-mph rail line running from Chicago to St. Louis via Champaign makes sense from both a transportation and economic development standpoint.
His comments came during an informal discussion, led by BankChampaign President Mark Ballard, of the benefits of high-speed rail. About 45 people attended the discussion Thursday at the M2 building in downtown Champaign.
Dimit said a 220-mph train could get Champaign passengers to Chicago's Loop in about the same amount of time it takes commuters from Chicago's northwest suburbs to get there.
That travel time would have advantages for both Champaign County companies needing to conduct business in Chicago and Chicago health care specialists called on to provide service at Urbana hospitals, he said.
Plus, having quick travel times to Chicago would be an advantage in attracting companies to Champaign County, he said.
With high-speed rail service, some working in the Chicago area might choose to live downstate, given houses are more affordably priced here.
In addition, area employers say they need a good supply of properly skilled labor and better travel options. High-speed rail could help solve both problems, he said.
In Ballard's words, high-speed rail could turn "the Rust Belt into the Research Belt."
Dimit said over the long term, passenger-per-mile costs of rail travel are lower than those of air travel. Plus, rail trips aren't subject to cancellation the way flights are when unfavorable weather hits.
Though super-fast trips by rail could reduce the need for air service to Chicago, Dimit said Champaign County would still need air service for longer trips, such as Dallas-Fort Worth or Washington, D.C.
He said the community must work now to keep the University of Illinois-Willard Airport viable.
"The airport issue is a today issue," he said. "Something has got to happen. If we can't keep air service, we'll drop off the map of where people put companies."
Dimit said the high-speed rail line from Chicago to St. Louis being built through Bloomington-Normal won't allow very high speeds. Though it's billed as a 110-mph line, physical limitations along that corridor will constrain speeds to about 79 mph, he said.
Dimit said it was largely through the efforts of the local advocacy group Champaign County First that plans for a 220-mph line through Champaign have progressed as far as they have.
He said federal officials have been impressed with how rapidly Champaign County and the state have moved forward with the proposal.
But he emphasized high-speed rail is a long-term project, suggesting it could be 2030 before the 220-mph line is up and running.
A feasibility study for the line is expected to be peer-reviewed this fall and released by the end of this year, he added.
Although the 220-mph line might have two phases of construction, Dimit said both phases need to happen for the project to go forward.
"We need the population base in St. Louis to make it happen," he said, adding there's also a possibility of adding a high-speed link from Indianapolis to Champaign.
The goal of Thursday's meeting was to stir interest in high-speed rail in both the private sector and public sector. Dimit said development of the line will require a private-public partnership.
In conjunction with the meeting, Champaign County First released a statement saying "Champaign County and the I-57 corridor demonstrate one of the best opportunities to pilot a high-speed rail project for the nation."
The statement added: "With Chicago being the third-busiest intermodal transportation hub in the world, it only makes sense that Chicago be an anchor to a true high-speed bullet train network."