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High-speed rail means jobs, economic boost, Illinois governor says

(The following story by Terry Hillig appeared on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website on February 1, 2010.)

ALTON, Ill. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Friday that federal funding for high-speed rail from St. Louis to Chicago will provide thousands of new jobs, boost the economy and help protect the environment.

Joining local officials at Alton's Amtrak station, Quinn said excellent transportation is important, and that, "There's no better way to do it than having a good train, a fast train."

Durbin, D-Ill., said trains are "part of our history, part of our strength and now they will be part of our future."

President Barack Obama on Thursday announced $8 billion in planned economic stimulus spending for high-speed rail projects around the country. The outlays will include $1.1 billion in improvements to the 284-mile St. Louis-Chicago corridor.

Work will include improvements to track, signals and stations, and implementation of advanced train control technology.

Missouri will get $31 million for eight projects intended to upgrade passenger rail service between St. Louis and Kansas City.

Officials said the various improvements will allow trains to travel as fast as 110 mph between Alton and Dwight, Ill., cutting an estimated one hour off a trip that now takes a little over five.

Illinois also will get $1.25 million for an environmental impact study of a proposed parallel track along the route, that would allow expanded high-speed passenger service.

Quinn said the work would create an estimated 6,000 jobs over several years and benefit the environment by reducing oil consumption.

The state's Amtrak ridership has increased significantly in recent years. Amtrak Chairman Tom Carper was on hand and said ridership at the Alton station was up 62 percent since 2006, with about 75,000 passengers arriving or departing there in 2009.

Illinois Secretary of Transportation Gary Hannig said the state has $400 million for high-speed rail improvements in a recently enacted capital bill, which could be used as matching funds for future federal dollars.

Alton Mayor Tom Hoechst said rail service between Alton and Chicago began in 1852. At its peak, he explained, 60 trains a day made stops in Alton.

Hoechst said city officials believe the improvements could enhance the city's standing as a place to live and visit. And he said he would work with Amtrak to spruce up the station and its environs.

Outside the press conference, about a dozen people carried signs critical of spending for rail improvements and urging added money for early childhood education. Quinn spoke with them as he left.

Scott Pyle of Fosterburg, one of the group's members, is concerned that a delay in state aid to the Alton school district threatens a prekindergarten program.

He said the governor told him he would "make it one of his priorities."

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

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