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Iowa governor promoting high-speed rail

(The following story by Rod Boshart appeared on the Sioux City Journal website on June 24, 2009.)

ATLANTIC, Iowa — Ann McCurdy said she was thrilled Wednesday to see a passenger train parked at the city’s former Rock Island depot.

“It’s been more than decades” since regular passenger rail service was available in her southwest Iowa town, the Chamber of Commerce director said. “It was before I was born.”

Gov. Chet Culver brought back a bit of nostalgia and hope for the future to passenger rail advocates Wednesday aboard a special three-car “Iowa Unlimited” train that carried with it the prospects for high-speed rail eventually linking Chicago and Omaha, Neb.

“We’ve never been this close. It’s never looked this positive,” Culver told reporters who rode with him on a 120-mile, 13-city excursion from Des Moines to Council Bluffs to promote the prospects for expanded passenger rail service in Iowa.

“We’re pushing as hard as we can to get this done as quickly as we can,” said governor, who held out hope for service from Chicago to the Quad Cities and possibly even Iowa City to begin by the end of 2010

Derrick James, Amtrak’s senior officer for government affairs, said if all the federal and state funding for Illinois and Iowa to rebuild track and buy railway cars could be approved in the next year or so, “we’re looking at maybe two to three years from that point when service can start.”

Culver boarded the special excursion train in Des Moines Wednesday morning -- joined by his children, Claire, 8, and John, 6, and local, state and transportation officials n and touted rail service at whistle stops in Earlham, Menlo and Atlantic. He also held a “Capitol for the day” event in Atlantic that drew McCurdy and about 100 people to a pot-luck lunch.

The Iowa governor said he met with Amtrak officials in Washington, D.C., this month to discuss rail prospects, and will attend a July 27 rail summit with other Midwest governors in Chicago to discuss region rail service plans.

Culver said the efforts have been aided greatly by federal stimulus money and President Obama’s support. “He wants to get Des Moines and Chicago linked. You couldn’t have a better advocate.”

During the 2009 session, Iowa lawmakers set aside $5 million to help promote rail service from Chicago to the Quad Cities, Iowa City, Des Moines and Omaha, and a separate northern link to Dubuque and Waterloo.

“It gave a real clear signal that we’re serious in Iowa about our commitment to light rail and high-speed rail,” Culver said.

The governor said he plans a similar whistle-stop rail tour next month that will travel from Manly to Waterloo, and possible an August rail swing through southeast Iowa.

While former Gov. Tom Vilsack liked to get close to Iowans via walking tours, Culver said he likely will make similar contacts using train trips and possible family bicycling excursions with his kids this summer.

“I really enjoy getting out and going to as many towns as I can across the state, large and small,” he said. “I’m going to be finding different ways to do that. This summer and throughout the rest of my term, we’re going to be really promoting the rail option.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

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