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Durbin pushes Chicago-St. Louis high speed rail line

(The following story by Marni Pyke appeared on the Daily Herald website on March 10, 2009.)

CHICAGO — It's notorious for being the most delayed train route in Illinois, but the trek from Chicago to St. Louis would become the state's fastest if Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn have their way.

Officials announced Monday the start of a unified push to lasso about $500 million in federal economic stimulus dollars for a high-speed rail corridor between the two cities.

Following a strategy meeting, Durbin announced the state would apply for funds to upgrade tracks to allow travel at speeds of 110 mph, reducing the 284-mile trip from about 51/2 hours to less than four hours. The maximum speed on the line now is 79 mph.

European high-speed rail systems are capable of traveling up to 186 mph but when asked about the difference, Durbin said, "Europe built the trains first," explaining that the Chicago-to-St. Louis route travels through many towns with grade-level crossings. Achieving "110 mph is a dramatic improvement," he said.

The Illinois Department of Transportation estimates it would cost between $500 million and $700 million for new cars and track improvements to get to the 110 mph level.

The government has allocated $8 billion in stimulus money for high-speed rail projects that will be distributed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, whose secretary is former downstate congressman Ray LaHood.

But "the idea behind this meeting is to take nothing for granted," Durbin said.

The most heavily traveled Amtrak routes in Illinois are the Chicago-St. Louis run and the Chicago to Milwaukee route, with annual ridership of 543,642 and 749,659, respectively.

Increasing speed on the Milwaukee line is difficult because of the high numbers of freight and Metra trains using it, officials said. The Chicago-St. Louis line saw ridership increases of 57 percent between 2007 and 2008 despite a 60 percent on-time status.

Quinn said high-speed rail on the route, which includes stops in Springfield, would help tourism. He added, "it's important Chicago Cubs fans get to St. Louis quicker with high-speed rail."

Quinn also said he hoped the state could generate its own $25 billion economic stimulus package but criticized the concept of using a gas tax increase to fund it.

Asked if his budget next week would revamp Illinois' income tax by increasing rates for the wealthy to raise money, Quinn avoided specifics. "I believe in giving tax relief to those paying too much," he said.

The governor also predicted "there will be (budget) cuts and they will be painful."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

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