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High speed rail plans running on federal momentum

(The following story by Larry Ingram appeared on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website on June 24, 2009.)

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — The proposed high-speed rail system that would connect St. Louis and Chicago has plenty of momentum, even though funding questions are far from answered.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon are riding on the promise of federal funding from the Obama administration to pay for the infrastructure that would link the two cities by high-speed rail.

The two governors talked about plans for the two-state coalition to compete for $8 billion in federal funds for the rail project at a press conference held at the Amtrak Station in St. Louis Monday.

But neither governor offered a specific year when the proposed rail system could pay for itself.

Quinn mentioned 2016, the date when the City of Chicago has applied to host the 2016 Olympic games, as a year when the rail line could be self-sustaining.

“It could happen even sooner,” he said.

He said the state is “on the verge” of passing a capital infrastructure/job recovery bill that would invest $400 million in high-speed rail, $300 million for the Create Program, to reduce passenger, freight and highway rail congestion in the Chicago area, and $150 million for Amtrak passenger rail.

Quinn said state legislators voted in favor of increasing taxes and fees on items that include liquor sales, and vehicle transfers and registrations, that would help to pay for the capital funding bill.

But the state is still attempting to overcome a $12 billion deficit, he said.

Quinn said his administration has proposed a temporary, two-year income tax increase to help offset program or service cuts in the state, and to shore up the massive state shortfall.

“We need to raise our income tax to have a balanced budget,” Quinn said. “We have to balance the budget.”

He said the state could potentially lose up to 100,000 jobs if there is not an influx of funds.

But financial woes in Illinois did not dampen Quinn’s enthusiasm for the rail project in the state.

He said having the high speed rail system would be “indispensable” for competing in the global economy.

“This is the opportunity of the century,” Quinn said. “It’s important that we get high speed rail, as fast as possible, between Chicago and St. Louis. I think our two states working together can make this happen.”

Last week the federal government issued guidelines on the application process for the $8 billion in stimulus funds for high-speed rail.

The guidelines have established a deadline of July 10 for funding pre-applications, and a final deadline of Aug. 24 for complete applications.

They also define high-speed rail as trains that operate from 110 to 150 miles per hour, covering from 100 to 600 miles.

Nixon said other states and multi-state coalitions would be competing for the same funds.

But Nixon said the federal guidelines could actually favor the Missouri-Illinois rail line.

“We have the plans drawn and the routes already laid out,” Nixon said. “We think we are well positioned to be number one on that list (of states and coalitions).”

Nixon compared the push for high-speed rail to the beginning of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.

Both cities “stand out” as two important Midwestern hubs of commerce and economic activity, he said.

“Chicago is one of the nation’s largest cities, and serves as a financial center for the Midwest and St. Louis has become a hotbed of high growth bioscience research,” Nixon said.

Nixon said the high-speed rail system would “greatly enhance” economic opportunities in both cities, and would employ hundreds of thousands of workers in both Missouri and Illinois.

“This will connect downtown with downtown,” he said.

He mentioned a number of funding mechanisms to help pay for the rail system in St. Louis, including federal grants and Build America bonds.

“We’ve got options here in the State of Missouri,” Nixon said. “We’re trying to find the smartest way to raise that money.”

Nixon said the coalition is hoping to get a “clear signal” to go ahead from the Obama administration for the project by the end of the year.

The two states are members of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Coalition, which has been evaluating potential rail expansion in the region since the mid-’90s.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

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