Iowa leaving $53 million for Amtrak service sitting on the track

Future of federal grant money still uncertain

Amtrak's Southwest Chief is seen here pulling into Kansas City's Union Station. (Fred Blocher/Kansas City Star/MCT)
Amtrak’s Southwest Chief is seen here pulling into Kansas City’s Union Station. (Fred Blocher/Kansas City Star/MCT)

WASHINGTON — Right now, you would need $75 minimum and at least nine hours of travel time to get from Chicago to Omaha aboard an Amtrak train cutting across southern Iowa and missing most of the state’s major cities.

Not very convenient, or efficient. If Gov. Terry Branstad and the Iowa Legislature had come up with the $20.6 million needed to match a federal grant awarded to Iowa and Illinois four years ago, a new intercity railway eventually could have run through some of the bigger cities in the eastern half of the state.

Rail passengers could get from Chicago to Iowa City in less than five hours. And the line potentially could be extended to Omaha.

But for now, the rail expansion ends in Moline, Ill., just on the other side of the Mississippi River. According to the Federal Rail Administration (FRA), no decision has been made about what will happen to the $53 million grant if Iowa fails to secure matching funds.

To complicate the quest for expanding passenger rail in the Midwest, the Iowa Department of Transportation reported last December the federal match requirement has skyrocketed to $72 million because projected construction costs and infrastructure needs have risen since the money was first determined.

A portion of the match would come from municipal governments, but the vast majority would have to come from the state, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Jimmy Centers, Branstad’s spokesman, said Thursday the governor believes the feasibility of passenger rail across the state needs to be carefully reviewed while keeping in mind the best interests of the taxpayers.

As the national passenger rail service provider, Amtrak is willing and waiting. But without the state’s investment in the infrastructure — to improve tracks and bridges and build passenger rail stations — there is little Amtrak can do.

“We have 19 state contracts,” Chicago-based Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. “If states are interested in having service, we are interested in being the operator.”

Advocates for the expansion — including Branstad’s opponent in Nov. 4’s gubernatorial election, state Sen. Jack Hatch — said the new rail system would boost the Iowa economy, including by creating new construction jobs.

“It would open up so many new enterprises along the line,” said Hatch by phone. “It would bring an enormous number of people from Chicago into Iowa.”

According to a report issued by the Iowa DOT, the rail project would generate $2.77 in transportation economic benefits for every dollar of investment, and create 209 jobs each lasting four years and another 31 operations and maintenance jobs.

But Branstad has said that he is skeptical that the rail line will provide many jobs once the construction is completed.

The funding standoff for Iowa’s railways illustrates a broader conversation in Washington, D.C., about government subsidies for passenger rail service. For almost as long as Amtrak has operated, Republicans and Democrats in Congress have debated the merits of the quasi-government outfit that almost always has operated at a loss.

Joshua Schank, president and chief executive officer at the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington-based infrastructure policy think tank, said Amtrak is a highly political vehicle.

“Without Amtrak service in other states around the country,” Schank said, “you wouldn’t have the political coalition needed to subsidize the Northeast Corridor.”

In other words, Schank considers Amtrak service throughout the country an essential way to ensure congressional support of what he said is the high performing and critical route from Washington to New York and Boston.

Ridership on the Amtrak Northeast Corridor line increased 15 percent, from almost 10 million passengers in 2009 to a little more than 11 million in 2012.

“When you consider the federal budget, the Amtrak subsidy is a rounding error,” Schank added.

In the 2014 fiscal year that ended Sept 30, the subsidy was $2 billion of a total $3.5 trillion federal budget.

The $53 million federal grant that hangs in the balance for Iowa to match is a portion of the original $230 million awarded to Iowa and Illinois in 2010 as part of a joint initiative to construct the rail. When Iowa leadership failed to match its portion of the grant, both states asked the FRA to split the money, and Illinois walked away with $177 million.

Nancy Quellhorst, Iowa City Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer, hopes completion of the rail system from Chicago to as far as Moline would be a catalyst for legislative action in Des Moines.

“It’s going to take observing the efficacy of expansion to the Quad Cities,” Quellhorst said via phone. “Our hope is that elected officials will then understand the value and be willing to allocate resources necessary to continue service to Iowa City and eventually to Des Moines and Omaha.”

The Illinois DOT announced this past Tuesday that construction has begun on track improvements and signal and capacity upgrades on the Chicago-to-Moline route, and is expected to be completed next summer.

Paul Trombino III, who stepped in as director of the Iowa DOT in May 2011 and is an advocate of passenger rail in Iowa, is quick to point out the increased construction costs resulting from inflation and changes in FRA requirements over the past few years.

“The governor and I had a good discussion about the project,” Trombino said in a phone interview, “but I couldn’t recommend moving forward with it given the cost.”

Trombino’s agency is moving forward with the first phase of environmental and engineering analyses, despite not having the funding for the next phase of construction. He’s hoping to get all of the analyses and preparation done so the state would be in position to jump on any future federal transportation grants.

“It’s how you get big transportation projects built,” Schank said. “You put a shovel in the ground and get started before you get all the money . You have to get momentum going in order to get that political build to get the rest of the money.”

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