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Illinois' new capital budget will boost, improve passenger rail service
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Illinois' new capital budget will boost, improve passenger rail service

Capital funding and new service are coming down the tracks for riders of Illinois’ passenger trains in the state’s new six-year, $45 billion capital budget, a.k.a the “Rebuild Illinois” program. That budget, signed by Gov. JB Pritzker on June 28, allocates $33 billion to transportation, including funding to improve existing routes and revive two dormant projects to restore passenger service between Chicago and the Quad Cities, and Chicago and Rockford.

The capital budget dedicates 20 percent of that total to transit and passenger rail projects including:

• $400 million for the CREATE (Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency) program;
• $275 million to revive the Chicago-Rockford service expansion project;
• $225 million to revive the Chicago-Quad Cities service expansion project;
• $122 million for Springfield’s 10th Street Corridor Consolidation project; and
• $100 million for potential line improvements to Canadian National (ex-Illinois Central Gulf) trackage to improve on-time performance and reliability for the state-supported Chicago-Carbondale Illini and Saluki services.

According to Todd Popish, passenger rail operations section chief at the Illinois Department of Transportation, the $400 million for CREATE will help continue the 75th Street Corridor Improvement program (see our previous coverage of this project here) and for other prioritized initiatives on CREATE’s list of projects to untangle freight, passenger rail and commuter rail routes. The overall program aims to improve all forms of rail service and reduce pollution from idling trains in and through the Chicago region.

The $275 million for reviving Chicago-Rockford service replaces previous state funding which was de-obligated when the initial project to restore passenger rail service between those cities plus Galena, Illinois, and Dubuque, Iowa, was put on indefinite hold in 2015.

Popish said this new funding for design and construction to re-introduce two daily round-trips between Illinois' largest and third largest cities – the first since the Chicago-Dubuque Black Hawk was discontinued in 1981 – will require the agency to restart talks with the Union Pacific railroad, Amtrak, and local communities on the project’s scope and schedule after a 4½-year hiatus. IDOT would eventually like to extend service west past Rockford to Galena and Dubuque, he added.

The $225 million in additional funding for the Chicago-Quad Cities route – which would run on BNSF and Iowa Interstate Railroad lines – should help complete that project, Popish said. This restoration of service dates from a 2008 request to Amtrak from both Illinois’ and Iowa’s U.S. senators (respectively, at that time, Richard Durbin and Barack Obama, and Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley).

This new money comes in addition to a 2011 FRA-awarded grant of $177.3 million and matching state dollars from Illinois’ last capital budget, in 2009. The new (2019) allocation is needed mostly due to previously unanticipated levels of rehabilitation needed on the Iowa Interstate’s portion of the corridor, and increased PTC implementation costs, Popish said.

The Federal Railroad Administration recently extended the 2011 grant five months to November 30; Popish said state officials hope to get a longer-term extension now that the state has additional funds to commit. Illinois’ U.S. Senators, Richard Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, wrote a June 19 letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in support of that extension.

Plans call for two round trips per day between Chicago Union Station and Moline via the BNSF to Wyanet, Illinois, where the route will switch to the Iowa Interstate. Intermediate stops include LaGrange and Naperville (both in suburban Chicago), Plano, Mendota, Princeton and Geneseo. Popish said the project currently is in the preliminary engineering stage, but IDOT is hopeful to reach agreement with Iowa Interstate on scope, schedule and budget shortly.

The Springfield Rail Improvements project received $122 million to continue work on the 10th Street rail consolidation program. That project will eventually shift state-supported Lincoln Service and long-distance Texas Eagle trains from the 3rd St. corridor, which bisects a residential street, east to a more industrial corridor and a new Springfield station. The City of Springfield has led this initiative, with support from IDOT. (See our previous coverage of this project here.)

And $100 million has been allocated for potential line improvements proposed by freight host railroad Canadian National (CN) to improve on-time performance and reliability for the state-supported Chicago-Carbondale Illini and Saluki trains. Work will need to be coordinated and negotiated with CN, but will likely include some sidings, universal crossovers and other projects, Popish said.

At this time, IDOT does not have timetables for construction on these projects, he said.

IDOT Spokesman Scott Speegle said the agency “is reviewing the legislation, its obligations and implications for individual projects like this and others as part of our multiyear planning process. We anticipate being able to share more details shortly.”

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