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Editorial: High-speed hopes hinge on cooperation

(The following editorial appeared on the State Journal-Register website on July 17, 2009.)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — In the last few years, the concept of a high-speed rail line connecting Chicago and St. Louis via Springfield has gone from pipe dream to one of the “shovel-ready” projects vying for federal stimulus money.

Being on the high-speed route would be a tremendous economic and quality of life boon for Springfield.

During this same period, the once lofty dream of establishing Springfield as a hub for the medical industry also has found its way from concept to blueprint with the establishment of the Mid-Illinois Medical District. Ideally, high-speed rail and the medical district would work in tandem to bolster the local economy and, overall, make Springfield a better place to live.

WE FEAR, however, that a plan favored by Union Pacific Railroad might severely hobble the medical district while also dealing a blow to Springfield overall.

For years, Springfield collectively has operated on the assumption that one day the Third Street railroad tracks that cut through downtown eventually would be removed. When the Mid-Illinois Medical District was established, a fundamental part of its master plan involved conversion of the tracks into a greenway. As the Capitol Avenue beautification project has proceeded, there has been talk of improving the unsightly bridge over Capitol Avenue once the tracks are gone.

Along with all that was the planning for a multi-modal transportation hub that would unite train, bus, taxi and other transportation services at a site north of the Sangamon County Building on the 10th Street railroad tracks.

The assumption always has been that the 10th Street rail corridor would host high-speed rail, whenever it arrived.

BUT UNION PACIFIC says it wants high-speed rail to run on the Third Street tracks. It says that route will trim 10 minutes from the Chicago-St. Louis line, will be cheaper to build and can be ready by 2014. Also, using the Third Street tracks frees Union Pacific from having to negotiate with Norfolk Southern Railroad, which uses the 10th Street tracks.

This would be a disaster to the medical district, which is bisected by the Third Street tracks. First, many medical facilities operate equipment that can’t withstand the vibration caused by train traffic. They won’t locate near railroad tracks. Second, ease of travel between Springfield’s existing and future medical facilities is essential to the medical district’s success. Having traffic disrupted by up to 40 trains a day, even short ones, will be a significant impediment.

We can understand Union Pacific’s position. It’s a railroad, after all, not a city planning company.

BUT THERE is much more at stake here than just running fast trains, both for Springfield and for Union Pacific. Ultimately, this is about securing part of the $8 billion in federal stimulus money set aside for high-speed rail. Springfield and Illinois want to be part of a high-speed rail network, and the benefits to Union Pacific need no explanation.

With Sen. Dick Durbin intimately familiar with this town’s longstanding transportation plans, surely an agreement can be reached that accommodates Union Pacific’s desire for maximum efficiency and this community’s long-term economic and transportation plans. As we see it, a strong alliance between this community, Union Pacific and the Illinois Department of Transportation represents the best shot at being among the leaders in the intense competition for the funding that can turn these plans into reality.

Friday, July 17, 2009

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