116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A new survey reaffirms support for expanding passenger rail service in Iowa.
More than half the participants - 56 percent - in a survey conducted by the SMART Transportation Division said passenger rail service in Iowa should increase. Another 77 percent said Amtrak should add service from Des Moines to Chicago, a concept that once had steam but has stagnated for several years due to lack of funding.
SMART is a union representing sheet metal, air, rail and transportation workers
'It just shows support, which is what we found when we looked into Chicago to Omaha,” said Amanda Martin, Iowa Department of Transportation's freight and passenger policy coordinator.
A 2012 Iowa DOT survey found 88 percent of 1,934 respondents would use a Chicago to Omaha service, and 73 percent said rail would be their preferred mode of transportation to get there.
SMART's state office, the Iowa State Legislative Board, released the survey last week. It queried 400 people in early November in Iowa's first congressional district, which includes Cedar Rapids and Dubuque. The survey also considered political races and freight rail legislation.
It found that 80 percent favored the proposed Safe Freight Act (H.R. 1763) requiring two-person crews in freight trains. And 81 percent supported positive train control, an automated backup braking technology mandated by Congress.
'It does confirm what we've already studied in the fourth and third districts; passenger rail at the current level or increased level has very strong support,” said Jim Garrett, director of the Iowa State Legislative Board. 'It also confirms what we found before that when the public is educated on two-person crew issues. ... They become much more concerned.”
On passenger rail, the survey showed 52 percent of participants support Des Moines-to-Chicago and Dubuque-to-Chicago Amtrak lines even if the state had to pay the 'full” operational cost, of up $3 million annually. The survey also found 64 percent of respondents believe the government isn't spending enough on transportation needs in Iowa.
The survey comes at a time CRANDIC, a division of Alliant Energy, is exploring whether to restart passenger rail service between Iowa City and The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids. It last operated in the 1950s.
Earlier this year, the company commissioned a feasibility study with the Iowa DOT and local municipalities. The study has not been completed, but past studies conducted every 10 years or so found it to be too expensive.
The question this time around is if demand coupled with population growth and renewed interest in transit options have changed the landscape enough.
Iowa DOT has been pushing for new options between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, especially with an Interstate 80/380 interchange replacement looming.
'I don't think it impacts our thinking on the passenger rail study,” said Jeffery Woods, CRANDIC manager of marketing and business development. 'We've had strong support for the concept since day one. At this point it's a matter of determining how much more, if any, the parties are willing to spend on tightening down the cost estimates.”
The Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce had been among the biggest proponents of a Chicago to Iowa City Amtrak service, which appeared a lock at one point. Now, estimates for the Iowa leg have grown to about $125 million, leaving a $72 million shortfall, according to Iowa DOT reports, and Illinois is mired in budget woes.
Environmental and engineering studies should be complete by the end of 2016, and the Midwest Equipment Pool has ordered 21 electric/diesel locomotives and 81 bi-level rail cars. Construction could begin at that point, but no money is in the pipeline for the Amtrak service.
'The federal government subsidizes all forms of transportation, roads, air, buses, even sidewalks,” said chamber President Nancy Quellhorst. 'So, I don't understand why there is this opposition to rail subsidies.”
Companywide, Amtrak reported Wednesday steady ridership and ticket revenues but a $306.5 million operating loss in fiscal 2015.