116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The Gazette Editorial Board
Proposed passenger rail service connecting Iowa City and, eventually, other major cities through the heart of Iowa with Chicago wouldn't bring much direct benefit to the Iowa Northern Railway Company, which moves freight through Eastern Iowa from Manly to Cedar Rapids. Instead, the east-west Iowa Interstate Railroad, Ltd., would be impacted the most.
Nonetheless, Iowa Northern is very much in favor of the expansion proposal, says Josh Sabin, the company's director of administration.
“Infrastructure improvements in Iowa are good for everyone,” he told us. “ While it (Iowa City proposal) is being made in hopes of bringing expanded passenger service, the potential for increased freight traffic goes along with it as we share the same right of way. ...”
Upgraded track and the faster, more efficient freight rail opportunities it would provide are just some of likely benefits of expanded passenger rail that justify our state's investment.
IOWA NOT ON BOARD
But many state legislators aren't yet on board. After more than two years since its introduction, the Iowa City connection proposal is still sidetracked in the Legislature. Again this spring, no commitment was made toward a state match of approximately $20 million needed to secure Iowa's $87 million share of $230 million in funding that the Federal Railroad Administration awarded in 2010 to Iowa and Illinois. It was intended as a joint project that would establish passenger rail service at speeds up to 79 mph from Chicago through to Moline, Ill., and then Iowa City. Meanwhile, Illinois has moved ahead and is already working on its portion of the project.
There's still time to secure the FRA's offer but the risk of it being withdrawn grows if Iowa doesn't act soon.
Project opponents, mostly some Republicans in the Iowa House, have argued against taking the federal offer. They believe passenger rail will never be self-supporting and would require an annual state operating subsidy, initially projected at $3 million annually. They're likely right.
But that's not reason enough to keep derailing this project. Actually, there are many reasons to embrace more passenger rail in Iowa's transportation future.
Keep in mind that other forms of public transportation infrastructure - roads, bridges, airports, barges, trails - are not self-supporting. They require taxes to build and maintain. They provide services that are vital to our economy and modern way of life - the common good.
They should be built to the extent they effectively contribute to those things and fit into a long-range vision.
THE NORMAL CASE
There are both parochial and statewide benefits for Iowa from expanded passenger rail service.
Iowa City public and private officials point to Normal, Ill., as a shining recent example. Normal is similar in size to the Iowa City metro area, located roughly the same distance from Chicago, and also is a university town. Leaders there decided a decade ago to invest in a new downtown rail station as part of a revitalization plan involving public and private partnerships. The results have been dramatic.
From 2004 to 2012 - through heart of the national economic recession - ridership grew 222 percent, more than $200 million in private development was invested in Normal's central rail station area, and downtown property values nearly doubled.
Increased ridership, now about 250,000 per year, is also credited with relieving some congestion on the heavily traveled I-55 highway between St. Louis and Chicago.
Normal's experience reflects what has been happening in many midwestern university towns during that same period. Official government figures from Amtrak - the nation's passenger rail corporation - show that ridership in a dozen major university communities in the Midwest has jumped nearly 125 percent. Amtrak ridership overall has increased 40 percent nationwide. And its on-time performance has improved to 83 percent, with even better results on the shorter routes of 400 miles or fewer, a recent analysis by the Brookings Institute shows.
Some objectors fear Iowa City would export local business to Chicago via passenger rail. But supporters say any such losses would be more than offset by local development (e, g, m see Normal and several other Midwest cities), as well more tourism and visitor opportunities.
Visitors, including the 32,000 University of Iowa alumni who live in Illinois and come back for UI sports and other events, already generate more than $200 million in annual economic impact and that would likely increase faster with convenient, affordable rail service.
Like I-55, Iowa's busiest major highway corridor - I-80 - stands to benefit from extending passenger rail to Iowa City as well as to Council Bluffs. Without any adding lanes, and if no passenger rail is developed, DOT studies estimate that by 2030, travel on I-80 will increase by 65 percent. That will create stop-and-go traffic conditions on as much as three-fourths of I-80 in Iowa.
Obviously, that's not acceptable. What's more, building an additional lane each way would cost about three times as much per mile as it would to upgrade the rail lines to handle passenger service.
An Iowa City connection also could spur more bus feeder routes from Cedar Rapids and north, helping relieve heavily traveled I-380. And eventually, perhaps a commuter rail line.
Another trend that needs to be figured into this discussion: Business travelers and young adults, especially in urban settings, increasingly want transportation options that allow them to park the car and use travel time to stay connected - online - for work, study or social purposes. Which means good passenger rail service and other public transit options are more and more what they look for when they're deciding where to live, work and/or attend college, as indicated by Iowa Public Interest Research Group research and other surveys.
The Iowa City connection's chances of being built any time soon may hinge on the outcome of the last segment of the Iowa DOT's planning study for the Chicago to Council Bluffs-Omaha corridor. That Draft Service Development Plan details and projects the operation costs, scheduling, financing and economics of passenger rail if implemented along that corridor.
The FRA is expected to finalize its review of the DOT's findings in August. If it doesn't verify sufficient demand for service beyond Iowa City, it will make the Iowa City plan harder to sell to legislators, said Geoff Fruin, assistant to the city manager in Iowa City who served in Normal during its rail renaissance.
In the meantime, backers of the Iowa City project will “continue to educate people, elected officials and the public,” Nancy Quellhorst, Iowa City Chamber of Commerce president, told us.
The Iowa match, she added, represents “such a modest investment for the state. It's such a small fraction of other transportation costs.”
True, the Iowa City project would require a tiny fraction of what is Iowa spends annually on transportation needs.
But as almost everyone who drives a car or truck can tell you, repairs and improvements on state highways and city streets are seriously lagging. Why spend money on passenger rail?
For one, the FRA's grant can't be used for other purposes.
In the broader view, we agree with those who see passenger rail as complementary to, not competing with, other forms of travel. It can help alleviate highway maintenance costs, while also reducing fuel use and negative impacts on the environment. Better rail lines increase the efficiency of freight rail, too, and can lessen reliance on big trucks for long-haul trips that relentlessly pound the nation's highways.
In short, passenger rail can contribute to a more robust Iowa economy and more lifestyle choices that attract and retain more young people, families and professionals.
This federal assistance and partnership is not one Iowa should pass up. If we wait much longer, the money likely will go elsewhere as FRA officials juggle increasingly limited federal funding with interest from other states.
As Josh Sabin of Iowa Northern points out, “this particular opportunity for federal assistance, I don't think we'll see it again in my lifetime in Iowa.”
Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org or (319) 398-8262