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Illinois gets $1.23 billion for high speed rail; Falls short of $4.5 billion requested

(The following story by Jon Hilkevitch appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on January 27, 2010.)

CHICAGO — Illinois' plans for high-speed passenger trains, designed to transform rail into a preferred transportation option and create jobs, will move forward on a slower track than some officials had anticipated.

The setback will become official on Thursday when President Barack Obama is scheduled to announce $8 billion in economic stimulus grants for the states to develop 13 high-speed rail corridors linking major cities and the rural areas between them.

Illinois will receive about $1.23 billion, according to the White House.

The decision places Illinois behind California, which is slated to receive $2.34 billion to begin building 220-mph passenger service between Los Angeles and San Francisco; and Florida, which will receive $1.25 billion to develop a high-speed route connecting Tampa, Orlando and Miami, officials said.

Illinois officials, from Gov. Pat Quinn to lawmakers chairing key transportation committees in the General Assembly, had been increasingly optimistic in the run-up to the decision that Illinois would receive between $2 billion and $2.5 billion to start 110-mph passenger service in a few years from Chicago to St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee and other Midwest cities.

Plans called for eventually investing in true high-speed travel that would boost train speeds to 220 mph and slash trip times, for example, on the Chicago-to-St. Louis route to under two hours, compared to five-and-a-half hours currently. The move would for the first time give rail a clear edge over air travel for trips of 300 to 500 miles, experts said.

In its application to the Federal Railroad Administration, the Illinois Department of Transportation requested $4.5 billion of the $8 billion available nationwide.

"I wish the decision were made to concentrate a lot of money on Illinois, but the expectations were probably too high,'' said U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., offered a different assessment of how Illinois fared in the competition for grants.

"At the end of the day, Chicago is still the rail hub of America, and it will be the high-speed rail hub of America,'' Durbin said. "That is good for us, good for the communities that are nearby and good for people who work construction jobs.''

Durbin noted that separate grants will be awarded Thursday to Wisconsin. That state will get $823 million for a Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison high-speed rail project that eventually would extend to Minneapolis. Another $244 million will go to Michigan for the Chicago-Detroit corridor.

The $1.23 billion for Illinois breaks down as follows:

$1.1 billion to construct tracks, install signals, build stations and buy some locomotives and passenger coaches for 110 mph service between Alton, Ill., near St. Louis, to Dwight, Ill.

$133 million to build the Englewood flyover bridge near 63rd Street in Chicago. The flyover is intended to reduce delays by separating Metra Rock Island commuter trains from Amtrak and freight trains on one of the most congested rail junctions in the U.S.

$1.25 million to conduct an environmental impact study on a proposal to build a second set of tracks between Chicago and St. Louis to accommodate 110 mph trains.

IDOT and the Union Pacific Railroad have been working for years to upgrade track and signals for high-speed trains on a portion of the 284-mile route between Chicago and St. Louis. But so far only a small section near Springfield has been tested at speeds above Amtrak's current maximum operating speed of 79 mph.

The federal funding was supposed to put the project and others on a fast track.

Illinois Transportation Secretary Gary Hannig said he's pleased that about 15 percent of the total federal grants is coming to Illinois. He said it will be important to show early successes to draw passengers to high-speed trains.

"The money will create a significant number of jobs and provide us with a springboard to continue to build as the project moves forward,'' Hannig said.

Aside from the federal grant, Illinois has committed $400 million for high-speed rail. But that's a down payment.

Passage of federal surface transportation funding legislation coupled with more federal and state investments in high-speed rail will be needed to meet the goals of getting 110 mph service up and running within several years between Chicago and St. Louis, Detroit and Milwaukee, officials said.

The broader concept envisions a nine-state Midwest high-speed network, with its hub in Chicago. That plan may have been dealt a blow by the Obama administration's decision to spread around the $8 billion rather than concentrate larger amounts of money on a few select projects, officials said.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

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