Federal money for trains seeks match from states

December 29, 2008
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LANSING — The Midwest is working on a plan to shorten travel time with more high-speed passenger rail trains connecting stations in nine states to Chicago.

The plan has been in the works since 1996 and is moving slowly, but with recent federal grants, it could be right on track. Called the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, it would allow speeds of up to 110 mph and stops in both rural and urban areas in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin, with Chicago as its hub.

“We’ve been working on it for a long time,” said John DeLora, chairman of Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers. “The public really hasn’t seen the need for it and there hasn’t been any pressure on the Legislature.

Now, routes to Chicago are often backed up, said Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation.

“Chicago is causing a problem in all of the Midwest states,” he said, probably because of freight trains and traffic congestion.

A passenger can expect to travel for about five and a half hours from Chicago to Detroit. When the plan is fully implemented, the commute would be reduced by almost two hours.

In September, a federal grant of $297,000 was awarded to the initiative to fund planning of the project for all nine states. All of the states involved and Amtrak pitched in to made an equal match, bringing the total to $594,000, said Randy Wade, passenger rail manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

“The Midwest can successfully build on a long-held Chicago hub that provides a network that benefits all of the states,” he said.

A recently passed bill by the House and Senate authorized a total of $3.4 billion for Amtrak development. The federal government would pay 80 percent of the grant, and the receiving state would pay 20 percent over a five-year period.

But in current economic instability, large amounts of state money — like what is needed to fund the project — is often hard to come by. The whole plan is expected to cost $7.7 billion.

DeLora said that public interest for public transportation coincides with gas prices, and he worries that now that the price at the pump has gone down, the urgency of the issue will be lost.

“When gas got up to $4 a gallon, people really saw they needed an alternative to driving,” he said. “This is no time for the Legislature to be hitting the snooze button.”

Test routes in Michigan, called the Wolverine Service, connect Grand Rapids, Port Huron and Detroit with Chicago and are operated by Amtrak.

When the new, modern equipment is fully implemented, planners expect 13.6 million riders per year by 2025. The Amtrak Wolverine Service carried about 472,000 passengers in October 2007 through October 2008.

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