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Stimulus won’t fund Rockford Amtrak route

(The following story by Thomas V. Bona appeared on the Rockford Register Star website on January 28, 2010.)

ROCKFORD, Ill. — Rockford’s Amtrak service has been shut out of the federal stimulus package.

It’s Rockford’s third stimulus application to be rejected recently, angering local leaders who say the package was supposed to help hard-hit areas like this one.

According to numbers released by the Obama administration tonight, the Rockford Amtrak project won’t be funded by the high-speed rail program in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Illinois is getting only $1.2 billion of the $2 billion it sought, most of it to be spent upgrading the Chicago to St. Louis route.

That doesn’t mean restored Amtrak service here is dead, though. The state capital construction plan includes $150 million for several Amtrak routes, including Rockford’s. That, in fact, was the original plan to restore the service until the federal stimulus offered a new option.

Amtrak service is still expected to return in early 2012, as long as state capital money comes as promised. Local leaders, though, may have to find money for train stations.

And Amtrak funding isn’t the only pot of stimulus money Rockford has lost.

Rockford was denied a $22 million grant to help rebuild poor neighborhoods in recent weeks.

And last week, Mayor Larry Morrissey said the region lost its bid for $71 million in stimulus funds to install broadband cables to help companies, schools and other firms send and receive large amounts of data. The region is applying, though, for a second round of funds that will be announced later this year.

Morrissey has also heard rumblings that Rockford won’t get $71 million to redo its downtown rail yards, upgrade tracks, move train traffic to other parts of town and build a truck-to-train cargo facility near Chicago Rockford International Airport. While that program’s recipients haven’t been announced yet, Morrissey said he’s been told Chicago is getting most, if not all of Illinois’ share of those grant funds.

Winnebago County has gotten at least $133 million from the nearly $800 billion stimulus package, according to federal and state data, and these other awards would have more than doubled that number.

Morrissey was livid that the area didn’t receive more funding.

“The stimulus was designed to help communities that were hard hit by the recession and I’m not seeing it,” he said. “Because they were using existing federal formulas to send the money out, we shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve been ignored by the federal and state government for years.”

Morrissey said the region will remind state legislators of their commitment on Amtrak funds, and he doesn’t expect a problem getting the capital plan funds.

But stimulus funds could have made for faster service, and would have paid for the new stations.

Rockford Chamber of Commerce President Einar Forsman, who helps lead a regional group advocating for Amtrak service, called the federal decision disappointing. He said local leaders need to actively lobby state officials for their Amtrak funds, especially since there are questions about when the money will be available. Bonds to fund much of the capital plan haven’t been issued yet, and local leaders are worried about an indefinite delay.

But with stimulus funds out of reach, Amtrak’s final route may be up for debate again. State officials chose a route that goes through Genoa for the federal application, but local leaders may ask them to reconsider a Belvidere route now.

“It’s an issue that I think comes back on the table,” Forsman said.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

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