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High-speed rail plan in Midwest gets a big push forward

(The following story by Jon Hilkevitch appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on July 28, 2009.)

CHICAGO — An agreement signed Monday seeking to fast-track high-speed passenger rail projects in the Midwest has three powerful engines pulling in its favor: the Obama administration, the clout of congressional delegations from eight states and the support of the nation's freight railroads.

Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin and the City of Chicago entered into a memorandum of understanding that commits the governments to coordinate plans to develop 110-m.p.h. rail corridors across the Midwest.

At Monday's ceremony, the pact was signed by five governors and Mayor Richard Daley. They all attended a summit in Chicago aimed at laying the groundwork to compete for the largest possible share of $8 billion the Obama administration has allocated for high-speed rail. Three other governors signed the documents earlier.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said the goal is to offer a faster and more efficient option for travelers, as well as create tens of thousands of jobs to boost the Midwest economy.

"This is a historic day," Quinn said. "It's very important that we look to the future."

Several governors mentioned President Barack Obama's strong support for the Midwest high-speed rail initiative, which would consist of a network based in Chicago and eventually branch out 3,000 miles over nine states.

But the first priority is to operate faster trains from Chicago to St. Louis; to Detroit/Pontiac; and to Milwaukee/Madison within three to five years. Preliminary cost estimates total about $4 billion.

Over as many as 20 years, additional high-speed as well as conventional train service connections would radiate to other destinations, connecting to:

--The east by way of Indiana, with service to Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati in Ohio.

--The southeast to Indianapolis.

--The northeast to Grand Rapids, Holland and Port Huron in Michigan.

--The north to Green Bay.

--The northwest to Minneapolis.

--The southwest and west through St. Louis to Kansas City, Mo.

--The south to Carbondale, Ill.

--The west to the Quad Cities, Iowa City and Des Moines; to Omaha, and to Quincy, Ill.

"The president's high-speed rail map talks about the importance of the Chicago hub and the corridors extending from it," said Jolene Molitoris, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation. "We are hoping to send 6 million or more Ohioans on high-speed trains to the Olympics in Chicago [in 2016]."

Daley singled out U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a staunch supporter for many years of improving intercity passenger rail, for setting the stage for Obama to pledge the $8 billion in federal stimulus funds, plus an additional $1 billion a year over five years.

"My role at the signing was as a federal inspector," Durbin quipped after watching the governors and the mayor ink the agreement at the Union League Club downtown.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said the rail projects would create 57,000 permanent jobs across the Midwest.

In the capital funding bill that the Illinois General Assembly recently approved, the state has committed $400 million to high-speed rail, plus another $150 million to plan for expanding existing Amtrak service from Chicago to Rockford and Dubuque, Iowa.

In addition, $300 million has been allocated to rebuild the state's aging rail infrastructure, a major source of congestion for both freight and passenger trains.

Chicago is the only U.S. city served by all of the "Big Six" freight railroads, and the freight industry views the specter of high-speed passenger trains as a tool to jump-start long-delayed plans to modernize and expand tracks, signals and related equipment to undo bottlenecks and expand rail capacity.

"It was clearly enunciated at today's summit meeting, to our great relief, that the freight industry will be made whole in these efforts. It wasn't something we heard in the past," said Tom Livingston, a vice president of state government and community affairs at CSX Transportation.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

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