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Consultant: Midwest high-speed rail wouldn't drain taxes

(The following article by Mike Ramsey was circulated by Copley News Service on January 26.)

CHICAGO -- The high-speed passenger rail network proposed for Illinois and eight other Midwestern states - now projected to cost $7.7 billion, nearly double earlier estimates - could operate at a profit without taxpayer assistance, a consultant pushing the plan said Wednesday.

"This is the system that prevents you (from) having to have operating subsidies," Alexander Metcalf of Transportation Economics & Management Systems Inc. told rail proponents at a luncheon in Chicago. "It's already been done. It's already been achieved in 'corridors' of similar length elsewhere in the world."

That standard generally has not been achieved here at home. Amtrak operates intercity passenger rail across the United States with federal subsidies and loses money. Illinois government pays the passenger railroad $12 million a year to run daily short-distance trains across the state.

Metcalf argued the Midwestern system would enjoy "economies of scale" that spread fixed costs over a 3,000-mile network

while preserving current union labor standards. At full build-out, it would generate $632 million in revenues in 2025, exceeding maintenance and operating costs of $466 million, according to a report Metcalf helped prepare for the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, the partnership of the nine states.

First, however, the federal government and the states would have to pay startup capital costs to upgrade freight lines for faster, more frequent train service and buy train equipment. The estimated price tag was $4.1 billion just a few years ago but has been updated and revised to $7.7 billion over 10 years.

The cost likely will increase with further study, Metcalf said.

"That's pretty much the way big infrastructure projects work," said Rick Harnish, director of the Chicago-based Midwest High Speed Rail Association. "There were two things that happened: One was inflation, and the other is they decided to get more details on what the railroads would really require for infrastructure work. So this is a strong effort by the states to be honest about their costs."

Within the network, the cost of developing the Chicago-to-St. Louis rail corridor that passes through Springfield has grown to $445 million, the report said. A January 2001 estimate from the nine-state group put the price at $350 million.

The Illinois Department of Transportation already has spent millions to overhaul track and crossings along the middle leg of the corridor. Once complete, trains would travel from Chicago to St. Louis at 110 mph - current top speed is 79 mph - and save passengers 90 minutes over today's travel time of about 5 1/2 hours.

The larger Midwestern plan has been around for years, but Congress has not acted on various high-speed rail proposals that would offer states matching grants to develop corridors as an alternative to driving and flying. Also, some policy-makers are critical of Amtrak and its potential role in such a plan.

Kevin Brubaker, a passenger rail advocate for the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said Metcalf's vision of a profitable train system isn't impossible to achieve.

"He said it can only make a profit if we build out the entire system," Brubaker said. "Since it's unlikely we'll be able to build out the system immediately, the states will continue to provide operating assistance until it's built out."

Asked about the Midwestern plan, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the railroad is more "focused" on a largely different group of rail corridors it previously identified as the best prospects for high-speed development. The "tier one" group includes the Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor.

The Midwestern system also includes the rail corridor that connects Chicago with Quincy via Galesburg. Trains would reach 90 mph top speed on that line, according to Metcalf's report.

Wednesday's event was sponsored by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association and the Indiana High Speed Rail Association.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

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