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High speed rail is on the fast track to Springfield, Ill.

(The following story by Tim Landis appeared on The State Journal-Register on July 16, 2009.)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — High-speed rail service is coming at Springfield faster than expected.

The Union Pacific Railroad has recommended to state transportation officials that the trains, which would travel up to 110 mph, use the Third Street corridor through the heart of downtown. A state decision could come in a matter of weeks.

But a group of community leaders, including Mayor Tim Davlin and Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter, said they hope to convince the railroad, along with state and federal officials, to take a closer look at the 10th Street corridor to the east.

“Once the corridor is determined, it’ll be full-speed ahead. Things are happening very, very rapidly right now,” Davlin said during a meeting of The State Journal-Register editorial board on Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Transportation also would have to approve the route, according to the group.

Davlin and Van Meter, along with executives of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and local hospitals, plus representatives of the Mid-Illinois Medical District said high-speed rail could mean up to 40 additional trains a day through downtown. It also might require installation of a second rail line for the high-speed trains, they said.

The additional trains would add to downtown congestion and would require major construction that would disrupt water, sewage and cable services

Van Meter said the 10th street corridor runs through a largely commercial area and fits into long-term plans for a multi-modal transportation facility that would give people access to train, bus, taxi and other public transportation all at a single location.

A tentative site has been selected along the 10th Street line just north of the Sangamon County Complex. The city has set aside $5 million for land acquisition, though the property has not yet been purchased.

“This is a very serious deal that needs very careful study,” said Van Meter, who added that the chosen high-speed route will affect growth in the city for decades to come.

Van Meter said the Union Pacific has estimated service could be started in 2014 on the Third Street line, but he said he does not believe additional study of the 10th Street corridor would result in significant delays.

The Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce has begun exploring sources of funding to help the railroad pay for additional study of the 10th Street line.

Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said Wednesday the railroad analyzed both routes in a report to the Illinois Department of Transportation, but the Third Street corridor is the least-costly, most-efficient alternative.

“On the proposal, the Third Street route is the preferred route, in particular to meet the criteria for high-speed rail,” said Davis.

The Third Street line has been upgraded, right-of-way is available, and it is easier to use an existing Union Pacific line. UP shares the line with Amtrak on the St. Louis-Chicago route.

Use of the 10th Street line would require coordination with the Norfolk Southern Railroad, which runs trains there, as well as extensive construction to upgrade the line.

“The 10th Street line would require us to go from a UP dispatcher to a Norfolk Southern dispatcher, and then back over. You lose efficiency,” said Davis.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has set aside $8 billion from the federal stimulus bill to develop high-speed rail nationwide. Members of the local group said they have contacted U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat and a strong proponent of high-speed rail, about the need for additional study of the 10th Street corridor.

Since federal stimulus money is involved, they said they hope the Obama administration and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood will also weigh in. The Peoria Republican represented the region in Congress prior to taking the transportation job last year.

It’s a delicate situation. We don’t want to take off the gloves and go for a fistfight,” said Davlin. “We do want to persuade them (UP) to take another look at the 10th Street corridor.”

Mid-Illinois Medical District president Michael Boer said high-speed rail along Third Street also would complicate efforts to attract companies to the economic-development district that includes Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, St. John’s Hospital and Memorial Medical Center.

“That rail corridor is a major barrier to tying all of those together, which is a goal of our plan,” said Boer.

Hospital representatives said vibrations from high-speed trains could even interfere with medical research.

Tim Landis can be reached at 788-1536.

What’s at issue.

* The federal government has approved $8 billion in economic stimulus money to establish high-speed rail service nationwide, including along the St. Louis-Chicago route in Illinois. The Union Pacific line, which is shared with Amtrak, runs through Springfield along the Third Street corridor.

* The Union Pacific railroad has concluded the Third Street line would be the least expensive and fastest route for trains traveling up to 110 mph.

*A group of community leaders is seeking additional study of the 10th Street corridor, contending that route is a better fit for the city’s long-term growth plans.

What’s next?

Union Pacific has filed its preference for the Third Street corridor with the Illinois Department of Transportation. Once a decision is reached at the state level, the recommendation would go to the U.S. Department of Transportation, possibly as early as next month.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

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