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When Iowa (almost) revived commuter rail

And how some hope the idea still has life

Apr 28, 2018 at 5:00 am
    The California Zephyr passes through the Amtrak train depot in Mount Pleasant on Friday, March 2, 2018. The only passenger train that makes regular stops here is the California Zephyr, which travels daily from San Francisco to Chicago. Amtrak leases the depot and rail lines from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

    On a normal day, Iowa City’s Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Passenger Station — or Rock Island Depot, as it’s commonly called — sits relatively quiet, other than the rumble of a passing freight train.

    It’s been nearly 50 years since passengers could board a train at the 120-year-old depot. But less than a decade ago, the revival of commuter services on those rails seemed all but certain.

    During a special event held at the 115 Wright Street depot on Oct. 28, 2010, then-Gov. Chet Culver met with a group of federal, state and local officials to celebrate the approval of a nearly quarter-billion-dollar federal grant that would help Iowa and Illinois achieve an ambitious goal: Passenger rail would connect Iowa City to Chicago by 2015.


    It’s now eight years since that announcement, yet the Rock Island Depot sees only those passing freight trains.

    “We missed a window of opportunity,” Culver said in February. “We came very, very close.”

    While conversations about a passenger rail line from Chicago through the Quad Cities, Iowa City, Des Moines, Omaha and beyond occur much less frequently, for some, including the former governor, the dream of seeing that passenger rail service chugs on.

    Rise and Fall of Passenger Rail

    The concept of re-establishing passenger rail from Chicago to Council Bluffs and Omaha first arose in 1996 with the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, a plan created by nine Midwestern states to develop 3,000 miles of high-speed rail in the region using Chicago as the system’s hub.

    The idea was a bit slow to take root in Iowa, with Culver’s 2006 election to governor one of the larger shifts in momentum.

    By 2009, the Iowa Department of Transportation had completed initial environmental studies for an Iowa City-to-Chicago service.

    In August 2010, Iowa and Illinois filed a joint application for $248 million in federal funding for the project. Two months later, the Federal Railroad Administration awarded a $230 million grant to the effort.

    The service was proposed to operate two daily round trips between Chicago and the Quad Cities — then west to Iowa City — at 79 miles per hour. The project eventually would expand across Iowa to Omaha with seven round-trips per day and speeds up to 110 mph, according to the Iowa Transportation Department.

    Annual ridership for a cross-Iowa rail service was estimated to reach 1.3 million passengers by 2040, according to the Iowa DOT.

    One of the biggest selling points of the proposed service was that it would be a green line and lean into Iowa’s status as a renewable energy state, Culver said.


    “Our dream, our goal, was to make this a 100 percent renewable operation. Everything from biodiesel to paperless tickets to bio-based lubricants on the tracks. We could have had solar stations along the way,” Culver said. “That was very appealing. I think there was a lot of interest in Iowa in doing that.”

    In 2011, following a request to split the federal funds into two phases, Illinois was granted $177 million. Iowa was pledged the remaining approximately $53 million.

    Pretty soon, the topic of passenger rail expansion had grown from local chatter to regional discussions to statewide debate.

    “It was a very exciting time. We had a lot of people for it,” recalled Brad Neumann, assistant transportation planner with the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.”

    While the Illinois leg of the project, with a few snags, moved forward to connect Chicago to Moline, Iowa’s progress hit a roadblock in the 2010 gubernatorial election. After one term in office, Culver, one of the biggest champions of passenger rail in Iowa, was ousted and Terry Branstad returned office.

    “Elections have consequences. After the 2010 election cycle in Iowa, we had a new governor obviously and he chose not to continue,” Culver said.

    Meanwhile, shifting costs added uncertainty to the project’s feasibility.

    By late 2013, new estimates placed the cost of the Iowa stretch of passenger rail close to $125 million. With the federal grant still in play, Iowa’s state and local share of the project looked to be about $72 million, with an approximately $600,000 annual operating cost, according to Iowa DOT.

    “I’ve always been open to looking at different options and alternatives with regard to this, but I don’t want the state stuck with an ongoing subsidy. That’s my biggest concern,” Branstad told The Gazette in 2014.

    Opponents of the service — which only had stops in a few Iowa communities — questioned passenger rail’s value to the entire state.

    “It was the ongoing operating costs, I think that kind of riled people up outside of the area,” Neumann said. “They asked ‘Why am I paying for this train for Iowa City?’”

    Meanwhile, supporters argued passenger rail would reduce congestion on the state highway system and serve as an economic development tool.

    “It helps foster that economic tie to Chicago, to Des Moines and other places,” said Ryan Sempf, director of government relations and public policy with the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce.

    As for Culver, the passenger rail project still holds promise.

    “We missed a window of opportunity and hopefully there will be another chance to make it happen soon,” Culver said. “The conversation isn’t dead. It still makes all the sense in the world.”


    Conversation Chugs On

    While Branstad was more reluctant to embrace passenger rail than his predecessor had been, the state in 2014 chipped in $1.24 million — paired with about $5 million of the preapproved federal dollars — to embark on preliminary engineering and detailed environmental studies for the stretch of passenger rail from the Quad Cities to Iowa City.

    Amanda Martin, freight and passenger policy coordinator for the Iowa DOT’s rail office, said the study not only includes looking at potential environmental impacts of the service, but also its effects on the privately owned freight railroad that the Iowa DOT would negotiate with to run a passenger service on.

    The addition of passenger rail services cannot slow the movement of freight, which means the project could require the construction of independent rail lines, Martin added.

    “You can’t negatively impact the freight rail system,” Martin said. “If there are impacts, you have to add additional infrastructure to keep the system neutral.”

    “These long-distance services bring economic stimulation to all the cities along their lines as well as access to convenient, efficient and affordable travel.”

    - Christopher Krebill, interim president with the Iowa Association of Railroad Passengers



    Martin said the study is anticipated to be completed yet this year, with potential future studies focusing on expanding service west to Des Moines and Council Bluffs.

    Brenna Smith, spokeswoman for Gov. Kim Reynolds, said in an email that Reynolds would wait to establish a position on the possible passenger rail service until after the studies are complete.

    “The governor is continually looking to improve and develop Iowa’s infrastructure, a driver for economic development in our state,” Smith said.

    Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposes canceling the remaining roughly $47.7 million in unspent federal funds pledged to Iowa’s passenger rail plans, which could add another barrier to state efforts.

    The proposed cancellation of federal funding doesn’t involve any funding that was previously obligated for the Chicago to Moline part of the project.

    Congress has not voted on the administration’s proposal to de-obligate those funds, but Martin said the department remains focused on completing the study to assure all alternatives remain viable.

    “There was always the potential for this money to be redistributed for other things,” Martin said. “We never hung our hats on the fact that that money was going to be there forever.”

    While future funding to support implementation of a new passenger rail service in Iowa remains up in the air, Martin said the Iowa DOT studies mean those options are nearly shelf-ready should there be funding available in the future.

    “They’re prepared to be able to sit for a little while if you can’t move forward. In the point in time that you can move forward, there might need to be some tweaking to those documents, but they do last for a while,” Martin said.

    Existing Passenger Rail

    In 1970, Congress passed the Rail Passenger Service Act, which placed management of the nation’s intercity passenger rail services in the hands of the National Railroad Passenger Corp. Amtrak began operations the following year, on May 1, 1971.

    In Iowa, Amtrak services include a Fort Madison stop along the Southwest Chief route, which connects Chicago to Kansas City and several stops — Burlington, Mount Pleasant, Ottumwa, Osceola, Creston and Omaha — along the California Zephyr route between Chicago and Denver.

    John McGlothlen / The Gazette

    Those six stations saw more than 60,000 boardings and departures in fiscal year 2017. Also that year, those stations brought in more than $5.2 million in combined revenue.

    Nationwide, Amtrak ridership increased 1.5 percent last fiscal year, to 31.7 million trips.

    For passenger rail proposals shorter than 750 miles in length, such as the 220-mile Chicago-to-Iowa City proposal, states take the lead while Amtrak serves as the operator, explained Marc Magliari, spokesman with Amtrak Government Affairs.

    “Those routes are half of our business nationally. We see that as a growing part of our business and a business we very much want to be in,” Magliari said. “As the operator, we believe there should be more trains in more places and more often.”

    Those services economically reduce the strain on the state’s existing transportation system — the interstates — Christopher Krebill, interim president with the Iowa Association of Railroad Passengers, said in an email.

    “The statewide effect would be that Iowans would be better connected and have a balanced transportation system,” he said. The Chicago to Council Bluffs service “would reduce the number of cars on the interstates and highways, which reduces the congestion and the costs for maintaining and rebuilding roads.”

    In addition to looking for ways to expand passenger rail in Iowa, Krebill said a focus should also remain on the state’s existing passenger rail routes in the southern portion of the state.

    “But along with this new service, we should be maintaining and expanding our current services,” Krebill said. “These long-distance services bring economic stimulation to all the cities along their lines as well as access to convenient, efficient and affordable travel.”


    Local Passenger Rail Discussion

    While the chances for passenger rail from Chicago to Iowa City, Des Moines and Omaha seems much less certain these days, efforts have been underway to look at a different, smaller commuter rail offering.

    In February, elected officials in Johnson County agreed to pursue the third phase of feasibility studies of a passenger rail service connecting Iowa City and North Liberty along routes currently belonging to the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway, or CRANDIC.

    As with the first two studies, the Iowa DOT and CRANDIC have agreed to pay two-thirds of the study’s cost, with local entities responsible for the remainder. The cost per entity usually has been around $3,000 to $4,000.

    The last study put the cost of an Iowa City-to-North Liberty passenger rail service at about $40 million to build out.

    By comparison, the first study on passenger rail in the Corridor estimated a 20.5-mile passenger rail service from Iowa City to The Eastern Iowa Airport, south of Cedar Rapids. That study estimated a service called Commuter Rail Transit, the cheapest option, at $250 million to $520 million, with annual operations and maintenance between $5.6 million and $6.7 million in 2015 dollars. A streetcar model could cost up to $1.64 billion, according to the study.

    Due to the high cost associated with an Iowa City-to-Cedar Rapids route, future studies brought the northern end of the proposed service down to North Liberty.

    The Phase 3 study could be completed later this year.

    As with the statewide passenger rail debate, supporters say the service offers economic development possibilities and alternative transportation options, while opponents question ridership numbers and the associated cost of such a project.

    While such rail services are largely a local effort, the state could provide resources, Smith with the governor’s office said.

    “The governor’s office maintains it is a locally led project, but the state can provide expertise, including helping with continued feasibility studies,” Smith said. “The state can also help coordinate efforts and discussions with the Federal Transit Administration for federal funding sources.”

    For ex-Gov. Culver, both the North Liberty-to-Iowa City route and the statewide service he championed years ago provide untapped potential for travelers and infrastructure.

    Iowans may not yet be able to hop on a train in Des Moines or Iowa City bound for Chicago, but Culver said he still has hope.

    “I think it’s a good time to kind of look back and say, ‘While this project didn’t get done, we were successful in working with local folks and federal officials to get a lot of other projects done,’” Culver said. “There’s not regret, there’s some disappointment in particular on this project, but I feel good we did everything in our power to help move it along.”

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