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Eastern Iowa commuter rail proposal on slow track

Cedar Rapids-Iowa City passage plan on back burner, but not dead

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Passenger rail has been a hot topic in Iowa the past few years. But before Chicago to Iowa City, it was Cedar Rapids to Iowa City.

In late 2006, a study was released to great fanfare on the possibility of a commuter rail system operating between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, plus service for special events.

Lately, the rail conversation has shifted to a proposed Chicago-to-Iowa City, and possibly farther west, Amtrak route that has become a political lightning rod.

But what about that idea of a Cedar Rapids-Iowa City rail line? It would give the thousands of people who commute daily on Interstate 380 another option and possibly ease congestion on the crowded roadway.

It also would provide a boost to public transportation, the environmental movement and the Creative Corridor initiative calling for more regionalism.

But there also are serious questions about whether the population and interest is there to support rail service. Some commuters say convenience would be their top priority, and the envisioned route would not meet their expectations.

Also, the concept has largely fallen off the radar in the past several years with no significant clamoring for it to come back.

That’s not to say there’s no interest. Just this spring, members of a Johnson County transportation organization said they’d like commuter rail to remain an option.

But it’s going to take time and growth, said Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau. He was one of the leaders of the 2006 study.

“We saw the potential, but really, it’s not going to move forward until public transportation in the corridor and population grows to the point that it’s really required,” he said. “And at that time, hopefully the railroad is still sitting there and hopefully the railroad is still owned locally, and it will be a great alternative.”

Rail study

The study was funded by local governments and led by R.L. Banks & Associates, a railroad consulting firm out of Washington, D.C., area.

It looked at the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway, more commonly called CRANDIC, and the Iowa Interstate Railroad. Together they form a triangle with Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and the Amana Colonies as the points.

The study found there was an immediate market for rail service for special events and tours, such as to the Amana Colonies. Regular commuter service, it said, would be “more expensive and the timing of implementation is a decision to be weighed by the communities as demand grows and funding becomes available.”

The study estimated 837 daily boardings for people taking a train to work between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City based on data from the year 2000. By 2030, that number was 1,991 daily boardings.

About 6,100 Linn County residents work in Johnson County, and roughly 6,700 go from Johnson to Linn, according to census data from 2006-10.

The route studied was the CRANDIC from The Eastern Iowa Airport to downtown Iowa City. Because of freight traffic and the need for extensive rail improvements into Cedar Rapids, passenger rail service north of the airport was deemed too expensive for further study at the time.

Not a good alternative

The lack of service beyond the southern edge of Cedar Rapids would be a potentially significant liability.

Consider Greg Hopson, 53, who gets on a commuter van five minutes from his Cedar Rapids home and is dropped off in front of University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, where he works. He’s at his desk 35 minutes after he leaves.

He said he’d be interested in commuter rail, but that changes if it picks up at the airport and drops off in downtown Iowa City.

“If that were the case, I’d stay in the van pool because that’s much more convenient,” Hopson said.

Without track upgrades, the train between the airport and Iowa City would travel 30 mph and the trip would take 50 minutes, according to the study.

Kris Cameron of Coralville would like passenger rail as a way to provide relief to a congested I-380, although as a personal trainer working primarily in people’s homes in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City areas, she needs to drive her car.

“Sometimes it feels like I’m on a NASCAR track because people are bumper to bumper, weaving in and out of traffic,” said Cameron, 43.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has studied adding a lane to I-380 in each direction from the interchange with I-80 to Wright Brothers Boulevard by The Eastern Iowa Airport. It would cost an estimated $400 million.

The DOT believes a train would not be fast enough and gas is not expensive enough for passenger rail to be feasible, said Cathy Cutler, transportation planner for the DOT district that includes Johnson and Linn counties.

Rail costs

The rail study estimated a North Liberty-to-Iowa City commuter service would cost $18.6 million in 2006 dollars, with annual operating costs of $4 million. Service from The Eastern Iowa Airport to Iowa City was priced at $21.4 million, with annual costs around $5 million.

If passenger rail can be built cheaper than new highways and it brings down demand for roadways, it makes sense, said Geoff Fruin, assistant to the city manager in Iowa City. He has experience with passenger rail in his previous job in Normal, Ill.

But passenger rail has proved to be a controversial subject, especially with the proposed Chicago-Iowa City service. State Republicans have objected to the $3 million annual operating subsidy the Iowa portion of the route would need in state funding

“That’s what frustrating for us,” Fruin said. “The business case is very hard to bring out when passenger rail has become such a political lightening rod.”

Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a Republican from Hiawatha, said he has not heard anything about the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City rail study for several years. He doubts there’d be enough support from lawmakers to put money toward a commuter rail system’s annual operations.

“If it’s a conversation about an ongoing subsidy, then my guess is that would be very difficult to do,” he said.

The smaller the community, the greater the operating assistance that is required for rail systems, said Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Possible funding sources outside federal and state dollars include a special sales tax or a tax district around the train stations, he said.

He provided a list of smaller commuter rail systems and light-rail lines, and all were in much larger communities than Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. The closest to the 420,000 people in what the Census Bureau classifies the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City combined statistical area is the Little Rock, Ark., area, with 894,000 residents. And its system is a trolley line that runs on a 2.5-mile loop.

The smallest community on the list with commuter rail was Albuquerque, N.M., which is part of a combined statistical area of more than 1.1 million residents. It provides about 3,600 rides a day, but the cost to build and operate the service has been controversial in the state.

Hawkeye Express

The Corridor may not be there yet with the population, but the Hawkeye Express to and from Kinnick Stadium during University of Iowa football games shows that if conditions are right — lots of traffic and limited parking — people will take trains, said Joshua Sabin, director of administration for the Iowa Northern Railway Co., the Cedar Rapids company that runs the service.

Hawkeye Express provided 29,677  rides for the seven home football games last season, he said. If you “provide people with a really reliable and safe and easy service, they’re going to use it,” he said.

Commuter rail came up at a meeting this spring of the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County, with members wanting to keep passenger rail an option as the region’s population continues to climb, said John Yapp, the organization’s executive director.

“I wouldn’t give it any more weight other than, it’s an idea,” he said.

Thaddeus Ternes, 30, of North Liberty, hopes the issue stays alive.

He runs the “Corridor Commute” website and Twitter page to provide traffic updates, particularly on I-380.

He used to drive to Cedar Rapids for his job, but he’s worked in Coralville for several months. No longer having to commute on I-380 played a role in his decision to take the new job, he said.

Like others, Ternes said convenience would probably be the top priority for commuters.

“I think it’s an exciting idea I still hope we see here in the next 10 years,” he said.

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