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Construction under way on Illinois high-speed rail leg

(The Associated Press circulated the following on September 18, 2010.)

ALTON, Ill. — Politicians on Friday cast Illinois as a pioneer for being the first to roll federal stimulus money into a high-speed passenger rail line, claiming that the jobs, tourism and traveler convenience anticipated from the St. Louis-to-Chicago route justifies the $1.1 billion taxpayer tab.

Using an Amtrak locomotive and two passenger cars as a backdrop, Gov. Pat Quinn, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and other dignitaries praised the start this month of $98 million in upgrades to a 90-mile stretch of track from Alton, just northeast of St. Louis, to Lincoln.

That leg, expected to be completed by the end of this year, will eventually tie in to Chicago. Officials said it will cut the travel time between St. Louis and Chicago by 90 minutes, to less than four hours, with trains traveling at 110 mph -- the Federal Railroad Administration's qualifying threshold for high-speed rail.

That's a 31-mph improvement over the top speed that most U.S. rail systems now operate, though Amtrak's 10-year-old Acela Express, which links Boston and Washington, can hit top speeds of 150 mph.

The high-speed corridor between St. Louis and Chicago should be running by 2012, officials said.

"We want to make sure the whole world knows we're in a race for high-speed rail," Quinn said.

The Democrat touted the project as a "mission" and "vision" that languished as a concept for years before construction finally began. Yet sometimes, Quinn noted, "the longest journey begins with the first step."

Quinn, who took over as governor after Gov. Rod Blagojevich's ouster, is seeking a full term in office this year.

Helping to fund the project is the $1.1 billion in federal stimulus money that President Barack Obama's administration awarded in January to enhance passenger rail service between his hometown of Chicago and St. Louis. Illinois, already grappling with a $13 billion budget gap, is contributing $400 million, Quinn said.

Such a project has drawn some skepticism, largely over its taxpayer-covered price tag and concerns that ridership might not meet expectations. In Wisconsin, GOP gubernatorial candidates recently promised to stop an $810 million project to build a 110-mph rail line between Madison and Milwaukee.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Illinois congressman, has defended the high-speed rail push. He called it an important part of a national rail program that advocates say could rival the interstate highways that begun in the Eisenhower era and took decades to complete.

Proponents also have pointed to the demand for Amtrak, which cites an improving economy and high fuel prices as the reason it's on pace for record ridership this year, carrying a best-ever 13.6 million passengers in the first half of fiscal year 2010.

Last month, Amtrak said ridership on its rail line between Chicago and St. Louis -- one of the service's most popular routes -- was up 11 percent over the last fiscal year. Amtrak said that from October 2009 through July, more than a half-million passengers made the trip.

Durbin, who with many others in his family once worked for the railroad, had little patience with nay-sayers Friday. The senator pointing to the 900 jobs the Alton-to-Lincoln upgrades could create and the roughly 24,000 jobs that proponents suggest the St. Louis-to-Chicago improvements should generate.

"To the skeptics who said we never should have done it, my question to them is, 'What would you do?'" Durbin said in justifying the federal taxpayer tab. "I know generations to come will have better service from Amtrak, more reliable service" with high-speed rail."

Monday, September 20, 2010

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