IOWA CITY — In July, HDR of Omaha began conducting a feasibility study for a 20.5-mile passenger rail service from Gilbert Street in Iowa City to The Eastern Iowa Airport.
The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway, or CRANDIC, called for the $40,000 first phase of the study, which was paid for with $12,500 from CRANDIC, $15,000 from Iowa Department of Transportation, and $2,500 each from several municipalities in Johnson County.
Past feasibility studies deemed such a service too costly with insufficient ridership, but the population has grown and this incarnation was viewed as different because CRANDIC initiated the effort.
What’s happened since
The study was expected to take 12 weeks to complete — done around October — but still hasn’t been finalized. A draft version of the study was released to a Gazette reporter last week.
The cost estimate was significantly higher than expected, which helps explain the delay in releasing information, said Brad Neumann, a transportation planner at the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County, which has been involved in the study.
“The numbers are kind of scary, which is why we wanted to whittle it down before we started to discuss it with the public,” Neumann said.
The probable cost for a service called Commuter Rail Transit, the cheapest option, was estimated at $250 million to $520 million, with annual operations and maintenance between $5.6 and $6.7 million in 2015 dollars. A streetcar model could cost up to $1.64 billion, according to the HDR study.
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The 2006 feasibility study estimated $21.4 million in startup cost, with annual operations around $5 million.
The HDR study provided estimates based on rail projects in other parts of the country without specifically analyzing the needs of the Corridor. Many of the costs in the study aren’t relevant in the Corridor, Neumann said.
For example, the study estimates construction of a layover and maintenance facility, positive train control technology, acquiring land and building a railroad bed. CRANDIC already has a maintenance facility and owns the land and railroad bed.
“That feasibility study was just a high level look at things, but wasn’t drilled down to what would be the cost here,” said Tammy Nicholson, rail transportation director at the Iowa DOT. “It also confirmed the location — the route was built for interurban passenger rail with designed stops — has a lot of benefits and is an ideal location for passenger service.”
The Iowa DOT remains interested in reducing the congestion on Interstate 380 and providing multiple transportation options, she said. The question is whether passenger rail service fits in.
A second, third and fourth phase of the study initially were foreseen, with each subsequent phase proceeding based on viability, but the unexpected high costs have left the study in limbo.
The partners are not ready to shelve the plan just yet. MPO, CRANDIC and Iowa DOT said may refine the scope considerably and proceed into phase two, but the question remains who will pay for it.
CRANDIC Marketing Manager Jeff Woods said if a second phase proceeds it would be a “deep dive into known parameters,” would consider a reduced service area, such as North Liberty to Iowa City, passenger service rather than passenger and freight, and a service option called Diesel Multiple Units, which is slower but costs less, Woods said.
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“What we’ve been kicking around for several weeks or longer is what is the next step, if any,” Woods said. “It boils down to what would the revised scope be, what is the value associated, and it is up in the air who pays for it.”