Passenger rail could get boost from Quad Cities route


Passenger rail talks continue

Supporters of expanding Iowa’s passenger rail service hope to strike a deal in the Legislative session’s waning hours to ensure the state funds its share of the project.

State Reps. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, and  Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, on Tuesday  announced a proposal that would see Democratic legislators vote in favor of a provision strengthening property owners’ protection from eminent domain seizures. Republicans in turn would agree to $5.5 million for multi-modal transportation projects, including the extension of planned Chicago-Quad Cities Amtrak service to Iowa City.

“It’s not a matter of matching issue to issue, it’s more an issue of matching two very popular items in both caucuses,” Mr. Jacoby said. “I believe both issues would receive fairly broad support across the aisle.”

Passenger rail supporters had hoped to include the multi-modal funding in the state budget bill, but it was stripped from the package late last week.

The eminent domain provision would tighten restrictions on the condemnation of private property for public uses. Prompted by a controversy in Clarke County, the new legislation would ensure property can’t be condemned for recreational purposes.

“The eminent domain language passed the Iowa House four times this session, each time with over 90 votes,” Mr. Kaufmann said. “There has also been much bipartisan support in the Senate, but it has not been brought up for a vote.”

“Generally, Republicans like the eminent domain (provision) a little more, and Democrats like the rail a little more,” Mr. Jacoby said. “But neither one is a deal-breaker. It appears the $5.5 million is available.”

Both Mr. Jacoby and Mr. Kaufmann were returning to Des Moines to shepherd the provision through the session’s last hours. Mr. Jacoby said the budget bill could see final approval by Wednesday afternoon, clearing the way for the Legislature to adjourn.


This story was printed in the Corridor Business Journal’s May 20 issue.

By Steve Gravelle

IOWA — Like a fast train dodging slower freights on a single-track railroad, supporters hope a proposal to expand passenger rail service across Iowa can weave its way past political opposition.

“Hope springs eternal, I guess,” said Gordon Canfield, Iowa Association of Railroad Passengers’ president. “It kind of rests with the Legislature right now and members of the House are particularly not excited. Everything else is pretty much in place.”

Mr. Canfield lives in Grinnell, which would be a stop on a proposed Chicago-Omaha passenger service run by Amtrak on tracks owned by Cedar Rapids-based Iowa Interstate Railroad. But first, he and others want to extend two daily Chicago-Moline trains, set to begin operation in fall 2015, to Iowa City. (The Omaha service would be a further extension of that effort).

“This is going to happen,” Nancy Quellhorst, Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce’s president and CEO, said of the new Illinois trains. “The question is whether we take a unique opportunity to have it here and now. We’ve watched expansion and improvements in other routes (nationwide).”

Barely an hour east of Ms. Quellhorst’s office, Paul Rumler is planning promotional and support efforts for Amtrak’s arrival in the Quad Cities.

“I have people asking me on a daily basis when are those trains coming,” said Mr. Rumler, Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce’s executive vice president and Quad Cities Passenger Rail Coalition’s executive director. “You can just see the smiles on people’s faces and the excitement.”

Planning is under way for improvements to track and signaling systems along the Iowa Interstate in Illinois to allow passenger trains to operate at speeds up to 79 mph, where Iowa Interstate’s freight trains now move at 40 mph, with some 25-mph stretches.

A key component is a new $5.6 million connection between Iowa Interstate and BNSF Railway at Wyanet, Ill., 131 miles west of Chicago; the new trains will operate over BNSF’s tracks between Chicago and Wyanet.

The federal government has obligated $230 million toward the project’s $310 million start-up cost, leaving Illinois and Iowa to cover the balance. Illinois has committed $45 million, and the Iowa Legislature appropriated $11.5 million for planning.

Iowa’s early support for Amtrak expansion came under Democratic Gov. Chet Culver and a Democratic House majority, but Gov. Terry Branstad and most House Republicans don’t support further spending, especially for Iowa’s $3 million annual operating subsidy for the service.

Rail advocates are working to build support along the entire Iowa Interstate route across the state, and are negotiating with Illinois to lower Iowa’s share of the operating subsidy.

“We all recognize, at the DOT as well as others, that it’s a critical time to determine whether we’re going to move forward on passenger rail to Iowa City,” said Tamara Nicholson, Iowa Department of Transportation Office of Rail Transportation’s director.

Ms. Nicholson said IDOT Director Paul Trombino is negotiating with his Illinois counterpart to re-calculate the two states’ shares of yearly operating costs. Iowa’s pitch is based on the University of Iowa’s student body. College students are a key Amtrak market, and the high percentage of UI students who are from Chicago offer a big ridership boost to the new service with relatively little additional cost.

“What it costs to run the train to Moline and to Iowa City is about the same,” Ms. Nicholson said. “It’s same crews, it’s the same train, it’s just another 60 miles that brings a lot more ridership. We think we should have a better, more positive operating cost for Iowa.”

Local governments in Eastern Iowa have furthered their case by assembling their own pool to cover about half the state’s $3 million annual share. Johnson County would provide just under $355,000 a year under that plan, Linn County about $190,000.

Meanwhile, rail supporters also hope to receive a two-year, $11 million appropriation for multi-modal transportation in the next state budget. Mr. Branstad has recommended the funds be included in a new two-year budget. The appropriation passed the Democratic-majority Senate but was stripped from the budget by the House Republican majority.

Sen. Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines), chair of the Senate conference committee that will hammer out the differences between the House and Senate budgets, said keeping the multi-modal funding “will send the feds in Washington with the rail authority a clear signal we’re moving forward.”

Mr. McCoy said he’ll make the multi-modal fund a priority in conference. Des Moines would be on the route of the extended Omaha service.

“We’re going to go to conference committee and we’re going to tell the folks in the House this is one of the priorities the Senate really wants to show some leadership on,” he said. “I will be really pushing them to take a good long look at this and to think twice before stripping this.”

House Republican leaders and staff didn’t return calls and emails seeking comment.

The multi-modal fund neatly matches what would be Iowa’s $11.2 million, two-year share of start-up costs for a new Iowa City service, but Ms. Nicholson said IDOT would seek a separate appropriation for those expenses.

“If we determine we can go forward with passenger rail, we would seek a dedicated fund for the start-up costs,” she said. “It would be eligible for the multi-modal fund, but more likely if it would go forward it would be a separate application.”

The multi-modal fund could be tapped to improve other services, including transit and intercity bus, freight rail, and aviation, according to Ms. Nicholson.

Iowa Interstate remains willing to host the Amtrak trains rent-free on its tracks, said Jerome Lipka, the railroad’s president and CEO. In an email, Mr. Lipka wrote Iowa Interstate “has consistently supported the concept subject to three major conditions that have not been challenged and have been accepted by all parties involved.”

Those conditions are that the passenger trains won’t interfere with freight operations and that costs to bring Iowa Interstate track to passenger standards and “any additional costs” be covered by the participating governments.

Meanwhile, Illinois and the federal government are on the move. Mr. Rumler said he expects work on the Wyanet connection and other improvements to start this fall. The federal government has awarded a $352 million contract to Japanese car builder Nippon Sharyo for new equipment that would likely be used on the new trains. To meet “buy America” provisions in the contract, the new cars will be built by subsidiary Nippon Sharyo USA’s new plant in Rochelle, Ill.

The city of Moline received a $10 million federal grant and was allocated $4.5 million in local funds to develop an intermodal rail/bus station that will also include an extended-stay hotel, retail space and restaurants.

“Everything’s taking shape,” Mr. Rumler said. “The station will be ready by the end of 2014. It will be ready and waiting for the train.”

If extended to Iowa City, the trains would stop at a refurbished depot on the south edge of downtown. The Iowa City City Council has passed a resolution to purchase the 1898 Rock Island depot, which served the city’s last regularly scheduled passenger trains in 1970, as an anchor for neighborhood development.

Even if they don’t initially serve Iowa City, Mr. Rumler expects the new Quad Cities trains will boost efforts to extend them westward.

“We’re focused on getting the service to us, but we think once that happens it’s going to serve as a proof of concept,” he said. “We think it’s going to be great for Eastern Iowa to have that train on its doorstep.”


Cedar Rapids-Iowa City route

While efforts continue to bring new rail passenger service across Iowa, don’t look for a renewal of the Corridor’s first transportation corridor. A 2006 study estimated it would cost about $40 million to return interurban passenger service to the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City (CRANDIC) line between its namesake cities. CRANDIC, a subsidiary of Alliant Energy, provided electrically-powered passenger service along the route until May 1953.

The 2006 study set a basic price for service between Iowa City and the Eastern Iowa Airport. Extending that route to downtown Cedar Rapids with a bypass of CRANDIC’s busy freight yards would nearly double the project’s cost, adding $39.8 million. The new CRANDIC service would be unlikely to draw significant traffic from Interstate 380 and would have required a significant annual subsidy to cover its $4.5 million annual operating cost, the study found.

The Johnson County Metropolitan Planning Organization’s application for a grant to continue development of the CRANDIC idea was rejected, said Brad Neumann, the MPO’s assistant transportation planner.

“Currently, all our efforts are focused on the Amtrak service from Chicago,” Mr. Neumann wrote in an email. “The Iowa City-Cedar Rapids passenger rail project will need further study to determine the kind of service we want and the destinations. I don’t see any further study until the Amtrak issue is resolved.”