Local Government

With growth, new study looks at passenger rail

Review a decade ago found cost too high, demand too low

(Gazette File Photo) Lynn Rowan of Anamosa, a shop mechanic with the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway Co., (CRANDIC) hoists up a syrup tank car platform while replacing the platform in the CRANDIC Shop, in front of a freight yard in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, August 3, 2004. The Shop is where locomotives and train cars are repaired before being putting back into service. Rowan has been working for CRANDIC for 7 years. CRANDIC is celebrating its 100th anniversary in August.
(Gazette File Photo) Lynn Rowan of Anamosa, a shop mechanic with the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway Co., (CRANDIC) hoists up a syrup tank car platform while replacing the platform in the CRANDIC Shop, in front of a freight yard in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, August 3, 2004. The Shop is where locomotives and train cars are repaired before being putting back into service. Rowan has been working for CRANDIC for 7 years. CRANDIC is celebrating its 100th anniversary in August.

IOWA CITY — Creating passenger rail from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids will get another look.

The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway, or CRANDIC, with financial support from several public agencies has commissioned a new feasibility study for service between Iowa City and The Eastern Iowa Airport.

“This was studied 20 years ago and 10 years ago,” said Jeffery Woods, CRANDIC manager of marketing and business development. “This is part of the natural progression. The latest iteration in the process.”

CRANDIC earlier this week gave the green light to HDR of Omaha to begin the first phase of a conceptual feasibility study. The $40,000 study should take about 12 weeks to complete and will focus on general information about cost, ridership, equipment and regulations.

If results merit it, phases two and three would proceed with details about riders, routes, stops and frequency, Woods said.

Rail advocates for years have been urging the utilization of light rail to enhance mobility, reduce emissions, decongest traffic and provide a cheaper alternative to widening Interstate 380 to six lanes, which could cost some $170 million.

The last passenger rail study, in 2006, found the cost too high and ridership demand too low.

The study estimated service from The Eastern Iowa Airport to Iowa City would cost $21.4 million with annual operations around $5 million. It envisioned 837 daily boardings, which would grow to 1,991 by 2030.

“I think the study is a good idea,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said. “The dynamics of the region is constantly changing. What may not have worked 10 years ago might work today.”

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Woods said several factors have changed, including a growing population and a different political climate. There’s more pressure to reduce carbon footprints and expand transportation options, he said.

Johnson County population grew 18 percent, from 117,459 to 139,155, and Linn County has grown by 10 percent, or from 196,706 to 216,111, between 2003 and 2013, the most recent 10 year span available from the U.S. Census Bureau.

I-380 traffic in North Liberty, roughly halfway between the airport and Iowa City, grew 42 percent, from 34,500 to 49,300 vehicles a day, between 2002 and 2010, the last time it was measured by the Iowa Department of Transportation. Traffic on I-80 in Coralville grew 17 percent, from 45,700 to 53,400, in that period.

CRANDIC once offered light-rail service, but that was discontinued in 1953, Woods said. But because the track already exists, it eliminates some important hurdles to restarting it.

The CRANDIC track runs through Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, Swisher and into Cedar Rapids. Freight traffic is 24/7 north of the airport, making it an expensive proposition, Woods said. The track in study area sees only about 100 rail cars a year.

The Iowa DOT has shown some signs of openness to passenger rail. The agency is contributing $15,000 toward the study, and has invested in several other recent studies looking to address congestion and commuting in Eastern Iowa. Passenger rail was identified as part of a multipronged solution, along with park and rides, van pools and intercity transit.

“With all the other things going on, we thought it would be a good idea to see if this is possible,” said Amanda Martin, Iowa DOT freight and passenger policy coordinator.

At a Johnson County Supervisors meeting last week, all five officials spoke favorably about passenger rail.

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The county, Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty and the University of Iowa each will pay $2,500 for the study. CRANDIC is paying $12,500.

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