Midwest Governors All Aboard For High-Speed Rail

Eight Midwestern governors and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) are seeking $3.5 billion in federal stimulus money for high-speed rail throughout the Midwest.

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (D) joined Governor Pat Quinn (D-IL), Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), Governor Jennifer Granholm (D-MI), Governor Chester Culver (D-IA), Governor Mitch Daniels (R-IN), Governor Jay Nixon (D-MO), Governor Ted Strickland (D-OH) and Mayor Daley in touting the benefits of Midwestern high-speed rail in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

According to the letter, high-speed rail would reduce traffic and airway congestion and pollution, in addition to the country’s dependence on foreign oil. They specifically noted Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics and suggested improved rail transportation could help the city’s chances.

“President Obama’s vision of making high-speed rail a part of our nation’s future transportation network holds great promise,” Gov. Doyle and co-signers wrote. “We recognize that a high-speed rail network has the potential to reduce highway and airway congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.”

Last month, Gov. Doyle applied for the full $519 million cost of a 110-mph passenger rail line connecting Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s two largest cities, with intermediate stops in Brookfield, Oconomowoc and Watertown.

The joint letter, dated April 10, stressed how that and other projects fit together as part of the Midwestern Regional Rail Initiative (MWRRI), a cooperative effort between Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and nine Midwest states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin) to develop an improved and expanded passenger rail system in the Midwest that has been under way for a decade.

This vision has been transformed into a transportation plan-known as the Midwest Regional Rail System (MWRRS). The primary purpose of the MWRRS is to meet future regional travel needs through significant improvements to the level and quality of regional passenger rail service. The rail service and its stations will also provide a stimulus for joint development. Senior officials from the nine Midwest states and Amtrak have tested, refined and confirmed that it is indeed feasible to implement and operate this 21st century regional passenger rail system.

The major elements of the nine-state passenger rail initiative specified in the letter include:

“• 3,000 miles of existing rights of way to connect rural, small urban and major metropolitan areas. The states will work with freight railroads to assess where capacity is needed to provide reliable 110-mph service.
“• Operation of a hub-and-spoke passenger rail system that provides service to and through Chicago to locations across the Midwest. All corridors provide service to city-to-city pairs within 500 miles of each other.
“• Modern train equipment that operates initially at 110 mph. Current passenger rail equipment is outdated and designed for a 20th century train network, not a 21st century network. Next generation train equipment will travel at faster speeds with better acceleration and deceleration, will provide increased comfort and amenities for riders, and will provide travelers with more options than air or auto modes.
“• Multi-modal connections that will improve the entire transportation system network. The states engaged in the MWRRI understand the importance of intermodalism. The passenger rail network and feeder system will connect riders to their communities, airports, bus stations and highways.
“• Focus on reliability and on-time performance. We know that ridership depends on trains that arrive and depart on time. We are familiar with the predictable by-the-minute train service that exists in Europe and Asia. The MWRRI Plan recommends track and signal improvements to achieve the same level of on-time performance. That is the MWRRI vision.”

The governors are seeking funding for the projects through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which specifically mandates funding for improving and deploying high-speed rail systems in the United States. The letter presents the case that the MWRRI has done the needed studies and preliminary work for projects that would provide increased mobility for travelers and promote regional and economic development goals.

“I believe Missouri and the other states in our region present a compelling and united case to the Obama Administration to fund these projects,” Gov. Nixon said. “Our states have been working on this rail initiative for more than a decade, and we will aggressively compete for these Recovery Act funds specifically designated for high-speed rail projects.”

The Midwestern network would include 3,000 miles of existing rights of way to connect cities with trains capable of at least 110 mph. Chicago, which is bidding to host the 2016 Olympic Games, would serve as the hub, just as it does for freight. The rail network would link large and small metropolitan areas, airports, bus stations and highways.

The Milwaukee-to-Madison route would be the first segment of a larger high-speed route from Chicago to the Twin Cities. That’s part of $3.4 billion that the officials are requesting for three routes, including Chicago-to-St. Louis and Chicago-to-Detroit lines. The letter states that with ARRA funds, projects in these corridors can be completed between 2012 and 2014.

They also requested $130 million for preliminary work on other segments of the Chicago-to-Twin Cities route and other routes, including completion of corridors that extend from Chicago to the Twin Cities, Indianapolis, Toledo, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pontiac, MI. In addition, further engineering and environmental work must be completed on routing alternatives between Dwight, IL and Chicago in the Chicago-St. Louis Corridor. Beyond these Phase II projects, the MWRRI states will also develop the remaining projects in the system plan, including: Chicago to Grand Rapids/Holland, Port Huron, Carbondale, Quincy, Quad Cities-Iowa City-Des Moines-Omaha and Green Bay; and St. Louis to Kansas City.

Ohio is developing its passenger rail service for its 260-mile “3-C” (Cleveland-Columbus-Dayton-Cincinnati
) Corridor
, which will reach 60 percent of Ohio’s population and is the most populated Chicago hub network corridor without rail service. Ohio is currently working on this project in partnership with freight railroads and Amtrak.

Much work has already been done to move these corridor projects closer to implementation. This work and the proposed next steps follow:

  • Wisconsin has completed preliminary engineering and an environmental assessment for 110-mph operations in the Milwaukee to Madison Corridor and has received a “finding of no significant impact” from the FRA. Funding will be sought for track, signal and other infrastructure upgrades, as well as new train equipment.
  • Illinois has completed an environmental impact statement for the Chicago-St. Louis Corridor and has received a “record of decision” for the portion of the corridor from Dwight to St. Louis. In addition, Illinois has already invested $143 million in the corridor. Funding will be sought for track, signal and other upgrades in the segment, as well as new equipment for the Chicago-St. Louis trains.
  • Michigan and Amtrak, working with the FRA, have implemented an “incremental train control system,” currently allowing 95-mph operations for portions of the corridor between Chicago and Detroit. The final audit report, which is nearing completion, and a request for increased train speeds up to 110 mph is expected to be submitted to FRA within the next few months. Funding will be sought for track, signal and other infrastructure upgrades.
  • Currently, freight and passenger trains are delayed by rail congestion in the Chicago hub terminal. Improvements in the Chicago hub are needed to achieve the goals of the MWRRI, including separation of passenger and freight movements to eliminate conflicts. Funding will be sought for infrastructure upgrades through a partnership of the State of Illinois, the City of Chicago, and the railroads serving Chicago.

Some Phase II projects are ready to go – for example, the St. Paul Union Depot project, which is being renovated to serve as a hub for Amtrak, inter- and intracity bus and passenger rail. In late 2009, the Northstar Commuter Rail Line, Hiawatha LRT and intra-city bus will all converge adjacent to the new Minnesota Twins Target Field in Minneapolis.

Since President Obama has outlined his high-speed rail vision for the nation, the nine states see a long-term policy and funding partner in the federal government for building the nation’s high-speed passenger rail network.

According to Transportation Economics and Management Systems, Inc., the development of the MWRRS will significantly expand the region’s economy. Economic gains include:

  • 57,450 permanent new jobs across the Midwest
  • $1.096 billion dollars of extra household income across the nine-state region
  • $4.911 billion dollars of increased joint development potential for the 102 cities with MWRRS stations

MWRRS will support existing industries and foster the growth of new businesses cross the Midwest by improving access between communities. It also will encourage large businesses to distribute their operations more widely into smaller, highly accessible Midwestern communities that provide a high quality of life for residents.

Opponents of high-speed rail claim the use of buses is less expensive and more flexible.

While buses do have a greater flexibility than rail they also contribute to increased highway traffic, pollution and congestion. The objective should be to use buses and rail in concert with each other to provide the optimum transportation system available.

The posturing of special interest groups is one of the contributing factors that have brought us to the uncoordinated transportation infrastructure we currently have. There is no single answer. Air, rail, waterway and highway transportation infrastructure interests need to focus on transforming our current transportation infrastructure into one that sets a new standard for the rest of the world.

ARTBA’s Critical Commerce Corridors (3C) (see video in sidebar) is an example of what our infrastructure could become. To get there we need a coordinated effort and right now we have the best opportunity we have had in decades and probably the only one for decades to come. We are making investments in our future. We need to invest wisely.

Greg Sitek

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