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Editorial: Illinois agencies didn't take stand on high-speed rail in 2003

(The following editorial appeared on the State Journal-Register website on September 12, 2009.)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Nearly a decade ago, the Illinois Department of Transportation unveiled a plan for high-speed passenger rail that would link St. Louis with Chicago via Springfield. IDOT invited every governmental entity along the 300-mile route to comment.

More than two dozen local governments took advantage. Some cheered the prospect, urging the state to proceed as quickly as possible. Others suggested tweaks, such as adjusting plans for specific crossings. Private citizens also weighed in at hearings held around the state, including one held at the University of Illinois Springfield.

But not a single government in Sangamon County responded to the state’s request for advice, even though the plan called for adding high-speed trains to Union Pacific Railroad tracks along Third Street – a proposal at odds with the long-held civic dream of closing down that line. Indeed, even as the state was putting the finishing touches on an environmental impact statement required before the high-speed project could proceed, it was paying for another study that called for all rail traffic in the city to be consolidated on the 10th Street corridor.

Why didn’t the city speak up?

“I don’t know—it’s a good question,” said Sangamon County administrator Brian McFadden, who was chief of staff for Mayor Karen Hasara at the time. “I don’t think people were anticipating the same type of impact as they are now.”

Hasara said she doesn’t recall the plan.

“All I can say is, things were a lot different then,” Hasara said. “High-speed rail was far from being a reality at that point. I do not remember the hearing or knowing about it.”

To be sure, the state’s plan, outlined in a draft environmental impact statement issued in 2000 and a final EIS published in 2003, was dramatically different than what is now being discussed.

McFadden and other local officials point out that the old plan didn’t contemplate adding a parallel track to the existing Union Pacific line. The state now hopes to secure more than $2 billion in federal funds for a new line.

The earlier plan also proposed no underpasses or overpasses. Now, officials are talking about building nine overpasses and one underpass in Springfield so that automobiles and trains can move at the same time.

The old plan also was silent on the issue of additional freight traffic. Now, the Union Pacific, which says it runs about 15 trains per day, says it wants to add 25 more freight trains a day to the Third Street corridor.

According to the 2003 study, high-speed rail would boost tourism in Springfield and increase attendance at the Illinois State Fair.

Like other entities in Sangamon County, the Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission didn’t comment on the 2000 and 2003 environmental studies. It’s unclear what further environmental review will be required now that the project has turned into a proposal that would establish a parallel track with significantly more trains.

If the commission knew then what it knows now, said its executive director, Norm Sims, the agency would have given the state feedback when it invited comments on high-speed rail in 2000 and again in 2003.

“Oh, yes,” Sims said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

Monday, September 14, 2009

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