A train route from Chicago to the Quad Cities and Iowa City has renewed hope after Congress passed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package earlier this month, with $66 billion set aside for Amtrak to expand rail service across the nation. The proposed route, many years in the works, would connect travelers for two daily round […]
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A train route from Chicago to the Quad Cities and Iowa City has renewed hope after Congress passed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package earlier this month, with $66 billion set aside for Amtrak to expand rail service across the nation.
The proposed route, many years in the works, would connect travelers for two daily round trips between Chicago to Iowa City — with stops in Moline, Illinois, in the middle — although trip details are preliminary and could change.
For Iowans, it’s a waiting game to see if the route will materialize.
“The Illinois Department of Transportation (DOT) is moving forward towards the implementation of service to the Quad Cities,” said Iowa DOT director Stuart Anderson. “In Iowa, we have proceeded to what we call preliminary engineering, which is looking at in a little bit more detail the corridor that goes from the Quad Cities to Iowa City and assess what the costs would be.” That assessment has taken place.
There are a couple things that happen next, he added. First, there needs to be confirmation that Illinois will implement the rail service in Moline for an Iowa City station to be viable. Then, continued discussions will take place about whether investing funds in the project is a priority for Iowa, since it’s unlikely the infrastructure bill funds will cover the full price tag.
The Illinois side has seen more progress on this issue than the Iowa side, said Mark Magliari, media relations manager for Amtrak.
“The Element Hotel development was built with the anticipation that part of the lower level would be a train station and right next to the tracks,” he said. “There’s a waiting room and ticket office already built there.”
But despite the constructed station, and the Element Hotel to accompany it, high-speed passenger rail is “several years out,” Illinois Deputy Secretary of Transportation Doug House told U.S. Representative Cheri Bustos in October, as reported by the Quad-City Times.
The tracks previously discussed in this plan are owned by Iowa Interstate Railroad and there would need to be a connection built between their tracks and BNSF Railway’s tracks, said Mr. Magliari.
Although public officials are not standing in the way, Mr. House said at the time, a significant obstacle is trying to put public transportation (Amtrak) on a privately-held entity (the railroad). They must also change the lines, currently used to transport freight, livestock and cars, from a Class II to a Class III designation to ensure the safe transport of people.
“This plan predates the current and previous governor of Illinois,” Mr. Magliari explained. “The question is whether the infrastructure bill is going to create some federal programs that will be competitive to support both the operations of these routes and the capital improvements needed for these routes to be operated. These grants are coming from the Federal Railroad Administration.”
Such delays push back the Iowa City train timeline but the demand for a rail service is still ever-present for some.
“I think the potential upside is immense for our city, the Corridor and the Quad Cities to connect our state with the economic and cultural capital of the Midwest,” said Greg Shill, an affiliated faculty member at the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa College of Engineering. He also notes that the safety and quality of life benefits are too good to pass up.
“The plan for an Amtrak Rail line from Chicago to Iowa City has been in the works for over ten years,” said Iowa City Area Development Group president Kate Moreland in an email. “This line would make it easier for students at the University of Iowa to travel to and from Chicago. It is exciting to see this project revived. Additionally, the investment in rail will have a significant beneficial economic impact for Iowa and is critical for Iowa to be relevant.”
According to vice president of marketing & sales Jennifer Walker, the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce also supports, endorses and advocates for getting a train from Chicago to Moline to Iowa City.
Whether this project qualifies for funding from the infrastructure bill is unknown at this time. However, since existing funding have already been set aside and untouched on the Illinois side of this project, it’s “fair to say” that qualifying for funding is not entirely dependent on a rail service coming to Moline. Still, it makes the process much easier, he explained.
According to Amtrak’s website, an Amtrak train ride from Chicago to Moline would take around three hours, while the entire trip to Iowa City would take just under four hours. The plan would bring in $81 million annually, plus $2.2 billion in economic activity from one-time capital investments.
Amtrak has until 2035 to utilize funds in the infrastructure bill to complete its Amtrak Connects Us plan, which could bring rail service to 160 new communities.