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High-speed rail seen as economic engine in Illinois

(The following by Jon Hilkevitch appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on January 18, 2010.)

CHICAGO — The residents of Normal, Ill., have one word to describe their community's train station:


Don't get them wrong. Amtrak's intercity passenger trains provide essential transportation in central Illinois for the twin cities of Bloomington, which includes Illinois Wesleyan University, and Normal, home to Illinois State University.

Airline service to the area from Chicago and other big cities has declined in recent years, contributing in part to the train station in downtown Normal ranking as the fourth-busiest Amtrak terminal for passenger boarding in the Midwest, behind Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis.

But the station is in bad shape and it's inadequate to serve future needs, officials said.

Normal Mayor Chris Koos traveled the approximately 135 miles to Chicago on Friday to participate in a conference that Gov. Pat Quinn called to improve passenger and freight rail operations in Illinois, and to be prepared to get off on a fast start when $8 billion in federal stimulus grants for high-speed rail are awarded to the states sometime before spring.

The meeting offered Koos the opportunity to spread the word about a downtown renewal program in Normal that includes building a modern transportation terminal in the town's central business district and surrounding it with office-residential redevelopment that is designed for people to walk, ride a bus or pedal a bike to where they are going instead of drive a vehicle.

The centerpiece of the Uptown Normal Renewal Plan is a new transportation center that will offer multiple travel choices -- Amtrak on the Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle routes; interstate and regional buses to other Illinois cities as well as destinations in Indiana, Missouri and Iowa; local cabs serving the town as well as the Central Illinois Regional Airport; and shuttle buses to O'Hare International Airport and Midway Airport in Chicago.

A new Marriott hotel and conference center opened late last year about 100 yards from the Amtrak stop. When the transportation center is built, "the walk from the hotel will be 50 yards," Koos said.

"It gives people the opportunity to come into a community for a conference, get off the train, go to the hotel, spend two or three days in a lively business district and never see a car the whole time," he said.

But the redevelopment program, which was started in 1999, is only about one-third complete. It needs an economic lift that a statewide rail modernization program can help provide, officials said.

"One hundred ten mile an hour trains would cut the travel time from Normal to Chicago to 1 hour 45 minutes," Koos said. "It's so important to getting us closer to the Chicago region."

Meanwhile, the optimism over rail modernization and high-speed trains is just as strong on Chicago's West Side.

Business leaders and community activists who have worked to turn around the West Garfield Park neighborhood are welcoming railroading in all its forms because of the great potential for economic expansion.

A major focus is retooling old factories and building new ones to support a manufacturing base for equipment and parts needed in the new high-speed rail system, said Steven McCullough, president of Bethel New Life, a faith-based community development corporation working to establish a sustainable community on the West Side.

It all comes down to creating jobs in a neighborhood already surrounded by rail operations, including a Union Pacific Railroad maintenance facility, the Green Line, Metra commuter rail, freight trains and the emerging high-speed passenger service.

"Rail is an integral part, along with land-use polices, to develop a successful neighborhood and combat the atmosphere of isolation in our community," McCullough said.

Chicago is the hub of a proposed eight-state Midwest high-speed rail network that includes various corridors with top speeds of 79 mph, 90 mph, 110 mph and eventually 220 mph, under plans submitted by the transportation departments in the states.

"High-speed rail is an incredible boost in mobility that is not just for Chicago," said Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

"It's for the huge numbers of people -- 2 million people within a 50-mile radius of Kalamazoo, 700,000 people in 15 counties within a 50-mile radius of Springfield, 1 million people within a 50-mile radius of Bloomington-Normal. This is beyond transportation. This is about communities," he said.

Quinn told the rail conferees that he is committed to making Illinois an inland port that will be the leading rail transportation hub in the U.S. "We've got to get it completed in my lifetime," he said. "I expect to live to 102 because at that point in time, I will have paid off my kids' college loans."

Monday, January 18, 2010

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