Rail advocates hopeful despite subsidy questions
DES MOINES – Rail advocates haven’t given up hopes of a passenger train resurgence that would link Chicago to Iowa City, Des Moines and Omaha, but questions about the need for government subsidies continue to bog down efforts.
Supporters of enhanced passenger service spoke out last week at the Iowa Statehouse, backed by the president of the Iowa Northern Railroad. They argued for plans to make the infrastructure improvements needed to start passenger service between Chicago and Iowa City, with hopes of later extending trains to Des Moines and Omaha.
Federal transportation officials committed $230 million in late 2010, with the condition that the Iowa and Illinois state governments would help pay for the project. Illinois has come up with money, and plans are moving ahead for extending passenger service to Moline, Ill., across the Mississippi River from Davenport.
Paris Ervin, spokeswoman for of the Illinois Department of Transportation, said Illinois agreed to spend $45 million and plans to start service in late 2015.
Advocates argue expanded passenger service is worth the money, but Gov. Terry Branstad has remained skeptical and since 2010 has opposed the needed state match to qualify for federal funding. Asked about spending state money on rail projects, Branstad didn’t sound like he’d changed his mind.
“We want to make sure to protect the interests to the taxpayers of Iowa and that we don’t have an ongoing subsidy that will cost the taxpayers of Iowa significant money,” he said.
Without a push to expand passenger rail into Iowa, Nebraska Department of Roads spokeswoman Mary Jo Oie said there likely wouldn’t be serious talk about an extension into Omaha.
“There’s never been enough support for it,” she said. “It’s still very early in the game.”
Support has been strong among some groups.
Last week, Dan Sabine, the president of Cedar Rapids-based Iowa Northern Railroad, joined Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, at a news conference where they backed rail expansion.
“We just think it’s good for the state of Iowa and our industry,” Sabin said.
Much of the proposed route through Iowa would be on lines owned by Iowa Interstate Railroad.
Jerome P. Lipka, president and CEO of Iowa Interstate Railroad, said rail upgrades needed for passenger service wouldn’t help his company financially and actually might be something of a nuisance, but he was willing to go along with the proposal as long as the railroad didn’t pay for the work.
“We’re doing it as a good citizen,” Lipka said. “We do not see any benefits to the freight business with this project but we are willing to host them and willing to help the state.”
Nancy Quellhorst, executive director of the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, said the line from Chicago to Iowa City would help local businesses and serve more than 6,000 Illinois students who attend the University of Iowa.
And Greg Youell, executive director of the Omaha Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, said there is plenty of local interest in passenger rail extension into both Omaha and Lincoln. He doesn’t think the state government shares that passion.
“The state government in Nebraska sees it as a waste of money,” Youell said. “It’s disappointing from our viewpoint.”