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Illinois high-speed rail deal in the works

(The following story by Kurt Erickson appeared on the Bloomington Pantagraph website on December 7, 2009.)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Talks aimed at ending an impasse over bringing high-speed passenger rail service to central Illinois could be nearing an end.

State transportation officials have applied for more than $4 billion in federal stimulus funds to upgrade Amtrak service between Chicago and St. Louis.

But Springfield and Sangamon County officials have balked, saying boosting the number of trains rolling through the Capital City could disrupt the community.

Springfield government and business officials earlier threatened a lawsuit aimed at blocking expansion of the line, triggering a series of behind-the-scenes negotiations between state and local officials.

Officials were planning a Monday briefing to discuss a possible resolution.

State Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, suggested the talks could be wrapped up soon.

"It's coming to a head," Poe said.

Illinois Department of Transportation chief Gary Hannig said he believes some progress has been made.

"We're always optimistic," Hannig said Monday. "I think we'd all like to come to some resolution."

Although its not clear what kind of resolution may be at hand, an amicable agreement between Springfield and the state could help convince the federal government to funnel some of those federal stimulus dollars into Illinois.

Illinois is competing for the largesse with a number of other states. The dust-up had some concerned that federal officials might look to spend the money in states where there was less opposition.

In Illinois, the money would help add an extra set of tracks to the Union Pacific line that runs between Chicago and St. Louis and includes stops in Dwight, Pontiac, Normal, Lincoln and Springfield.

In addition to allowing Amtrak trains to travel at higher speeds, Union Pacific says the upgrades may allow them to boost the number of freight trains on the route to as many as 20 per day.

A decision from the federal government on which states will be funded is expected to come within the first three months of 2010.

"It's a real unique opportunity," Hannig said.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

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