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Two Illinois cities win BUILD grants to improve their Amtrak stations
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Two Illinois cities win BUILD grants to improve their Amtrak stations

Two Illinois Amtrak station improvement projects are the only Midwestern passenger rail-related winners among $900 million in BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) grants announced on November 12, 2019, by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The city of Carbondale, which is the southern terminus for the state-supported Illini and Saluki trains, was awarded $14 million toward transforming its Amtrak station into a “multi-modal” station offering connections to local and regional transit services. The town of Normal, a stop on the state-supported Lincoln Service and long-distance Texas Eagle, was awarded $13 million to add a second platform and a pedestrian/bicycle underpass at the city’s Amtrak station.

“The recent BUILD Grant awards for the cities of Normal and Carbondale are positive steps forward for passenger rail in Illinois and the Midwest, and will benefit both communities as they continue to develop their downtown districts’ safe and accessible connections to both state corridor and national network Amtrak service,” said MIPRC Chair Robert Guy. “These awards are just another example of why Congress needs to preserve and increase rail granting authority within the upcoming FAST Act reauthorization.”

According to Carbondale’s grant application, plans involve rebuilding what city officials describe as the current “aging, deteriorating, and functionally obsolete” station built in 1981 into the “Southern Illinois Multi-Modal Station” (or SIMMS) to serve a region stretching from Evansville, Indiana, to Paducah, Kentucky, to Cape Girardeau and St. Louis, Missouri. The city, which is home to Southern Illinois University’s main campus, requested $16.5 million in BUILD funds for the $17.5 million project.

The station’s 18,800-square-foot first floor will house functions for Amtrak, local transit providers, various Ride-Share programs, and a Greyhound bus service office. A 21,400-square-foot upper floor will have multi-use lease spaces and a childcare facility.

Carbondale City Manager Gary Williams said the city plans to complete design work in 2020 and begin construction of the new station in early 2021. The city is also hoping to secure about $6 million from the state's new $45 billion "Rebuild Illinois" capital spending plan, he added.

Normal, home to Illinois State University, sought $16 million for its $24.6 million “Underpass at Uptown Station” project to design and build a pedestrian, cyclist, and passenger underpass at the city’s Amtrak station.

According to its grant application, the underpass will “provide a safer and more efficient, grade-separated route for pedestrians and bicyclists” moving between downtown Normal (known locally as “Uptown”) and the “larger Bloomington-Normal urban area,” by integrating an existing 43.5-mile pedestrian/bicycle path that connects the towns of Normal and Bloomington.

Currently, the tracks force trail users to take a sloped, 1,000-foot detour to an at-grade crossing over the railroad tracks before rejoining the trail. This crossing sees 620 cyclists and 1,230 pedestrians on a typical weekday. Amtrak passengers using the station’s south platform must also cross the tracks at grade.

“The Underpass Project would provide a safe, grade-separated crossing beneath the railroad tracks for these pedestrians and cyclists, eliminating hazards from oncoming passenger and freight trains. The underpass also is a critical connection between boarding platforms at Uptown Station, eliminating the need for passengers to cross at-grade,” the city’s application said.

A Bloomington Pantagraph story from Nov. 6, 2019, quoted city officials saying the project could be completed by 2022, depending on how quickly additional funding can be secured.

The discretionary BUILD grant program used to be known as TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) and is a legacy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which was also known as the “stimulus” bill. Since its inception MIPRC states have won more than $300 million for myriad passenger rail-related projects.

Only five percent of this BUILD funding round went to rail projects (and just 10 percent went to transit projects), according to an analysis by Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation.

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