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Springfield rail talks continue, but 'substantive' differences remain

(The following story by Bruce Rushton appeared on the State Journal-Register website on November 13, 2009.)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — State and local leaders in Springfield are still meeting, but not reaching agreement, more than a month after Illinois asked for more than $4 billion in federal money to build a high-speed rail link between St. Louis and Chicago via the capital city.

The state wants to run high-speed passenger trains along Third Street, where Amtrak and the Union Pacific Railroad currently operate.

The Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and local governments, including officials with the city of Springfield and Sangamon County, want train traffic consolidated along 10th Street, where the Norfolk Southern railroad now owns the right-of-way.

Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter said he, Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin, Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Gary Hannig and senior staff members from the office of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, have been meeting weekly.

“The meetings have been positive, but we’re not there yet,” Van Meter said. “There’s some pretty substantive issues that are hanging us up.”

Van Meter declined to be more specific.

Local leaders have threatened to sue if the state goes forward with high-speed rail on Third Street.

The concern isn’t so much passenger trains, but additional freight traffic. The plan calls for installing a parallel track on a line that now has a capacity of 30 trains a day. A two-track corridor could handle as many as 75 trains a day, and Union Pacific, which now runs about a half-dozen freight trains on the route, has said it wants to boost that number to 22 trains a day.

Local officials are seeking a memorandum of understanding with IDOT in which the state would agree to put trains on 10th Street if that alignment proves affordable and environmental studies show it’s the best option.

“We are making progress and we are working diligently to move this forward,” said Marisa Kollias, IDOT spokeswoman. Christina Mulka, Durbin’s spokeswoman, said the senator is “encouraged” by progress made in the ongoing discussions.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, is watching. He is sponsoring a bill that would bar IDOT from spending any money, state or federal, on any high-speed rail project along Third Street. The bill is on hold while Hannig negotiates with local officials.

“We’ll continue to monitor the situation,” said Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman. “The speaker’s resolve is to get the issue worked out so it’s mutually acceptable to all elements.”

Monday, November 16, 2009

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