Passenger rail hinges on subsidy issue

Up to $20.6 million in state investments will be needed to secure an $87 million grant to Iowa

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DES MOINES – Expanded passenger rail in Iowa probably will hinge on the willingness of local communities and Illinois officials to defray the cost of operating trains west of the Quad Cities, key legislators said Tuesday.

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 at least on west to Iowa City with long-term plans to continue through Des Moines to Omaha, Neb. Up to $20.6 million in state investments will be needed to secure an $87 million grant to Iowa from the Federal Railroad Administration to upgrade tracks to handle trains traveling at 79 mph.

However, House Republicans and Gov. Terry Branstad are balking at the idea of committing Iowa to a $3 million yearly subsidy to operate the Iowa legs of the passenger routes.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said he is concerned that ongoing subsidies could turn out to be even higher than projected and some of the built-in assumptions “seem a little bit extravagant.” For that reason, he said, House Republicans remain opposed to subsidizing the passenger service.

“From my perspective, nothing’s changed,” he said.

The Iowa Department of Transportation says Illinois officials acknowledge that the ridership benefits for Illinois are aided by the potential for out-of-state University of Iowa students to use the service to Chicago, so they may be willing to shoulder a larger share of the operating costs which would lower Iowa’s subsidy “significantly.”

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he believes the subsidy issue may be addressed via the negotiations with the Illinois DOT and communities along the route that are willing to invest local resources to leverage the economic benefits and enhanced freight service that could come with the rail and service upgrades.

“If everything goes well, I think the operational cost will drop,” said Dvorsky, who noted that this has to be the session to deal with the issue or the federal money likely will be withdrawn and redirected somewhere else.

Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, who sat in on Monday’s Senate Transportation Committee discussion of the Iowa passenger rail project, said his opposition has softened somewhat with the additional information about lower the state subsidy and the freight benefits that Iowa could reap.

“I think rail is a great option for the state. My only question is who pays,” he said.

“If communities and Illinois can take care of that so the state’s not on the hook, I think it’s a win,” Feenstra added. “At the end of the day, I do think that the state will probably put up the money. To me, there are some things in life that make sense and transportation is one of them. If the federal government wants to give us the money that they’re looking at, I think we have to look at a way to pay our share.”

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