New federal Corridor ID & Development Program draws interest from across the Midwest
While formal applications to the new federal Corridor Identification & Development Program aren’t due until March 20, "expression of interest" letters solicited by the FRA starting in May 2022 and submitted by state DOTs and other interested parties, give a preliminary indication of which Midwestern corridors and city pairs are likely to compete in the program’s inaugural round of funding.
Created by the Infrastructure Improvement and Jobs Act (a.k.a. the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law), the program will guide the development of new and enhanced intercity passenger rail services nationwide.
Submitting "expression of interest" letters is not a prerequisite for applying to the Corridor ID program, but the Federal Railroad Administration used them to gauge interest in the new program and to meet with prospective applicants. The agency also met with all states with state-supported Amtrak routes, and other states on an individual basis, before the Corridor ID program’s official Notice of Solicitation and Funding Opportunity was published in December 2022.
As of Jan. 13, MIPRC state departments of transportation in Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and North Dakota have submitted letters of interest to the FRA indicating they are looking both to expand existing state-supported services and add new ones.
Such routes in Michigan include additional daily frequencies to the states’ current routes, which now include service on the Wolverine (three daily round trips, Pontiac-Detroit-Chicago), Blue Water (one daily round trip, Port Huron-Chicago) and Pere Marquette (one daily round trip, Grand Rapids-Chicago). Michigan DOT also proposed new services, or extensions of existing routes from Detroit to Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio, and across the Canadian border to Windsor and Toronto, Ont.
MDOT also indicated interest in improving the corridor from Chicago to Porter, Ind. – the heavily industrial, so-called “South of the Lake” segment, where its passenger trains (and Amtrak’s long-distance trains to Cleveland and the East Coast) are frequently delayed by freight traffic.
Kansas was joined by the Oklahoma and Texas departments of transportation in submitting a joint letter of interest in expanding the Heartland Flyer (currently one daily round trip, Fort Worth, Texas, to Oklahoma City) north via Wichita, Kan., to Newton, Kan., where it would connect with the long-distance Southwest Chief (which runs one round trip daily between Chicago-Los Angeles). The Northern Flyer Alliance and Mid-America Regional Council, a bi-state regional planning forum in the Kansas City metropolitan area, also submitted letters of interest regarding this expansion.
Minnesota DOT indicated interest in extending the pending, yet-to-be-named second daily Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago service from St. Paul to Minneapolis and adding a third daily train in that corridor.
MnDOT also expressed interest in the planned Northern Lights Express service from Minneapolis to Duluth via Superior, Wis. (also endorsed by the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance), new routes via Madison and Eau Claire, Wis., and in new services from the Twin Cities to:
- Des Moines, Iowa, and Kansas City;
- Moorhead/Fargo, N.D.; and
- Sioux City, Iowa.
In addition, the department indicated interest in the proposed restoration of the Chicago-Twin Cities-Seattle North Coast Hiawatha service, which Amtrak inherited from the Burlington Northern upon its inception in May 1971 and ended in October 1979. The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, a coalition of Montana counties advocating for the proposed North Coast Hiawatha restoration along its entire historic route, separately expressed interest in this service, too.
North Dakota DOT indicated interest in the Fargo-Bismarck-Dickinson segment of the potential North Coast Hiawatha restoration – a segment also endorsed by the Dickinson, N.D., Convention & Visitors Bureau.
When it was a part of Amtrak's system, the North Coast Hiawatha shared a route with the Empire Builder from Chicago and Milwaukee through the Twin Cities to Fargo, N.D.; and from Sandpoint, ID, to Seattle. But where the Empire Builder goes north from Fargo to Grand Forks (and then west), the North Coast Hiawatha went straight west from Fargo on a route roughly parallel to Interstate 94. When Amtrak cut the route, it cut service to (from east to west): Valley City, Jamestown, Bismarck (North Dakota's capital), Mandan, and Dickinson in North Dakota; and Glendive, Miles City, Forsyth, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, Butte, Deer Lodge, Missoula and Paradise in Montana.
Missouri DOT indicated interest in expanding the Missouri River Runner (currently two daily round trips, St. Louis-Kansas City) to three round trips and adding station stops. MoDOT also expressed interest in extending the Illinois-supported Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg trains (one daily round trip each from Chicago to Quincy, Ill.), to Hannibal, Mo. and in establishing new services from Kansas City to Branson and St. Joseph. The department also joined Minnesota in expressing interest in establishing new service from Kansas City through Des Moines to the Twin Cities.
During MIPRC’s 2022 Annual Meeting, FRA officials said they will use the Corridor ID Program as the primary means for guiding financial support and technical assistance towards efforts to establish new intercity passenger rail corridors or improve existing services. They stressed this is a multi-year program meaning that corridors which aren’t selected this time can be resubmitted in future rounds.
Selected corridors will undergo a three-step process (corridor sponsors will be able to decide after each step whether to move to the next one):
- First, Scoping and Program Initiation: FRA will provide $500,000 in “seed money” to get service planning work underway, while corridor sponsors develop the scope, schedule and a budget for producing a Service Development Plan.
- Second, Service Development Planning: FRA will work with project sponsors to prepare a Service Development Plan that will identify capital projects and advance them in preparation for final design and construction (sponsors will need to provide a 10 percent match, but any unspent seed money from Step One can be used here).
- Third, Project Development: Corridor sponsors complete environmental reviews and preliminary engineering (sponsors will need to provide a 20 percent match).
Projects that are identified and fully developed through the program will benefit from a selection preference for future funding opportunities through the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail program.
In evaluating corridor proposals, FRA will target projects that bring tangible public benefits, and special emphasis will be paid to projects that benefit rural and underserved communities, FRA officials said in a press release announcing the program. Proposed corridors should make regional travel more sustainable and reduce congestion, boost local economies, and create jobs, among other benefits, they said.
For this first round of the Corridor ID program, formal corridor proposals must be submitted to the FRA by 5 p.m. EST/4 p.m. CST on Monday, March 20. See the Notice of Solicitation and Funding Opportunity here.