Advocates tout benefits of freight rail upgrades in Iowa

Emphasis on passenger rail service raises concern

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Iowa rail advocates expressed concern Monday that the state may be walking away from a $100 million upgrade for freight lines that would boost shipping capacity and lessen the traffic demand on interstate highways because the issue is being viewed solely from the subsidized passenger rail perspective of linking Chicago with Iowa City via the Quad Cities.

“If Iowa wants to be a player in the world economy, we must have modern, efficient, safe railroads,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, co-leader of the House-Senate budget subcommittee on transportation, infrastructure and capitals. “While we’ve been calling this a passenger rail project, it is probably more accurate to call it a freight rail project. It is a freight rail project because the vast majority of trains will travel that will travel on these improved rails -- traveling at faster speeds with improved safety – will be freight trains.”

Dan Sabin, president of the Iowa Northern Railroad Co., said Iowa has an opportunity to upgrade a freight rail system that could be world class, but that chance could go away if the state fails to take advantage of federal money being offered as part of the proposal to connect Chicago to the Quad Cities with passenger rail service and then extend that to Iowa City.

“It’s really all or nothing at this point,” said Sabin, who was among seven people who testified in favor of expanding rail service Monday during a meeting with the Senate Transportation Committee. “We won’t get a second chance at that kind of funding. A $100 million federal grant is not going to come around again.”

State transportation officials hope to have results available soon from a feasibility study for connecting passenger rail service already in the works from Chicago to the Quad Cities. Up to $20.6 million in state investments will be needed to secure an $87 million grant to Iowa from the Federal Railroad Administration – funding that House Republicans have opposed, while Gov. Terry Branstad said he does not want to saddle Iowa taxpayers with ongoing subsidies to operate the passenger trains in Iowa.

McCoy said Iowa officials currently are negotiating with Illinois officials to see if they will shoulder a bigger share of the operating cost to acknowledge the benefit they will receive from non-resident University of Iowa students using the expanded Amtrak passenger service for trips to Chicago.

Tammy Nicholson, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation office of rail transportation, said she expected Iowa’s yearly subsidy for passenger rail service from Chicago to Iowa City would be “significantly less” than the $3 million cost initially projected.

“I would guess the annual ongoing subsidies would be covered by the communities involved with the economic development they’re going to enjoy as a consequence,” said Sabin.

Geoff Fruin, assistant city manager in Iowa City who previously was involved in a passenger rail upgrade in Normal, Ill., said that Illinois community benefitted greatly from the economic boon that accompanied the rail expansion and he expected a similar effect would happen in Iowa if government officials are willing to make an investment.

Jeff Kurtz, of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said what is lost in the discussion is the benefit Iowa will reap from increased investment in its freight lines.

“It is undeniable that the strong majority of trains that will benefit from these railroad enhancements will be freight trains,” Kurtz said.

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