Local financial support under discussion for passenger rail

In this April 30, 2009 file photo, an eastbound Amtrak train rolls through Amsterdam, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, file)
In this April 30, 2009 file photo, an eastbound Amtrak train rolls through Amsterdam, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, file)

With Gov. Terry Branstad balking at the cost, the Iowa City area could help pick up the bill to operate an Iowa City-to-Chicago passenger rail line.

The City Council last night gave its approval to send a letter to the state saying the city would pursue local funding for Amtrak service. The city did not commit itself to spending any money, though.

Local officials and those from the Quad Cities, Des Moines and Dubuque met last week to discuss the plan with officials from the Iowa Department of Transportation, Amtrak and Illinois. On Monday, Iowa City was told its contribution would need to be $300,000 to $400,000 a year.

“That’s actually a very good number compared to what it could have been,” City Manager Tom Markus said.

Mayor Matt Hayek said the city would ask surrounding communities and the University of Iowa to contribute, if the plan moves forward.

The federal government has awarded $230 million to establish Iowa City-Chicago passenger rail service in 2015. It would pass through the Quad Cities, and there’s talk of eventually extending it to Des Moines and having a route to Dubuque.

Branstad has said he does not support picking up Iowa’s share of operating costs, estimated at $3 million annually.

Spokesman Tim Albrecht said the Governor’s Office will need to see what happens before commenting on whether local financial support would make Branstad more agreeable to the project.

“He continues to review the rail project as a whole,” Albrecht said. “And certainly we’ll be interested in reviewing whatever action the City Council takes with regard to passenger rail in Iowa.”

Passenger rail is a key part of Iowa City’s plan for a major redevelopment of the area south of downtown now called Riverfront Crossings. The rail depot would be in the middle of the district, and local officials believe the foot traffic it would bring to the area would be a significant boost to the plan.

John Yapp, executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County — previously known as the Johnson County Council of Governments — said one idea for local funding was establishing a tax increment financing district in Riverfront Crossings, which would divert some of the tax money from redeveloped property.

Local officials still would prefer the state pick up the cost, as was expected before Branstad was elected Nov. 2.

But, Iowa City Council member Connie Champion said, “If that’s what we have to do to get the train, I’m totally for it.”

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