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Durbin upbeat on high-speed rail in Illinois

(The following story by Bruce Rushton appeared on The State Journal-Register website on July 24, 2010.)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Sen. Dick Durbin said Friday that giving the Union Pacific Railroad $98.3 million in federal money for track improvements without an agreement in place to allow high-speed passenger rail is still a good idea.

“We’re going to get this (high-speed rail project) done — there’s no question in my mind we will,” Durbin said during a news conference at his Springfield office.

However, a deal announced this week between Union Pacific and the Illinois Department of Transportation, which will disburse the money to the railroad, does not obligate Union Pacific to allow high-speed passenger trains. The money will be spent on concrete ties and new rail on 90 miles of UP line between Alton and Springfield and between the capital city and Lincoln. The agreement gives the railroad sole ownership of the taxpayer-funded improvements.

Union Pacific and other freight rail companies have balked at demands by the Federal Railroad Administration that they either repay federal grants or fund additional infrastructure improvements if high-speed passenger trains don’t run on time.
High-speed rail can’t go forward without approval from railroads that own rights-of-way.

The issue has been unresolved since May, when the FRA announced its intention to make financial penalties a condition for giving grant money to states. That has stalled the release of $8 billion in federal grants for high-speed rail announced in January, including more than $1 billion in Illinois to establish a high-speed link between Chicago and St. Louis.

Why not wait until the issue of grant conditions is settled before paying for track improvements?

“I’m more positive and optimistic than you may be,” Durbin answered. “I’ve talked with (Union Pacific) from the beginning, and they’ve been supportive (of high-speed rail). They want to maintain a railroad that’s going to haul freight — that’s their first obligation to their shareholders. So we need to work with them to work this out.”

The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat said construction should start now so that people will have jobs.

“What I want to see, what the governor wants to see, is putting people to work right now — good-paying jobs right here at home — and put the investment in that rail corridor,” Durbin said.

However, under the agreement between IDOT and Union Pacific, the railroad will supply the labor, and there is no requirement that Union Pacific hire state residents, which Durbin acknowledged.

“In terms of the jobs created, I’m going to be a pain in the neck to folks at (Union Pacific) if they start bringing in workers from other places,” he said. “That’s not to say they shouldn’t or couldn’t, but I’m going to be telling them we’ve got plenty of skilled workers right here in Illinois, over 29 percent unemployment in the construction trades. And for goodness sakes, help our own first.

“I want to help our nation, don’t get me wrong. But first I want to help Illinois.”

In announcing the $98.3 million federal grant, Gov. Pat Quinn in a news release said the project “will create hundreds of jobs.”
According to the release, the track improvements “will support more than 900 jobs.”

But Brad Schaive, business manager for Laborers Local 477 in Springfield, has said his office hasn’t gotten a single call from anyone interested in hiring for the rail project.

John Webber, IDOT spokesman, said the state relied on railroads to calculate the number of jobs to be created. The nation’s biggest freight railroads, he said, figure that every $1 million spent on construction creates nine jobs.

“It (the state’s job figure) came from a study that those folks did,” Webber said.

Monday, July 26, 2010

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