Illinois high-speed rail hits another speed bump

(The following story by Kurt Erickson appeared on the Bloomington Pantagraph website on September 29, 2009.)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. Efforts to bring faster Amtrak service to Illinois hit another speed bump Tuesday.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, introduced legislation Tuesday that would bar the state from spending money on a segment of the line in Springfield that is designated as the high-speed rail route.

Madigan's move comes in response to a fight underway in Springfield, in which officials are balking at the potential for additional passenger and freight trains running through the middle of the city.

While other communities on the Chicago-St. Louis route are embracing the idea of faster trains, Springfield officials said the additional trains will disrupt car and truck traffic and potentially result in a number of unsightly overpasses and underpasses.

The move came just days before the state is scheduled to apply for federal funds set aside to jumpstart high-speed rail across the U.S.

With the issue of the corridor in Springfield in limbo, many high-speed rail supporters fear Illinois will lose out in the national competition for the $8 billion set aside for the projects.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, for example, said Monday the dispute in Springfield could derail the state's long-running efforts to improve travel times between Chicago and St. Louis.

On Tuesday, Normal Mayor Chris Koos agreed the uproar in Springfield could hurt Illinois' chances.

"I think this whole issue with Springfield is going to be a detriment to all of us," Koos said.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the legislation could be discussed by lawmakers as early as next week.

"The intent is to supply some common sense to the whole process," Brown said. "It appears the whole process has been jumbled."

Koos acknowledged that the lure of federal dollars has created conflict.

But, he's been telling officials in other communities on the proposed line that details can be worked out after the federal money is secured.

"We see this as a huge economic development issue," Koos said.

Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Gary Hannig, a former top Madigan lieutenant, issued a strongly worded statement urging Springfield to get behind the rail effort.

"Every lost opportunity to expand service or develop the necessary infrastructure will place further pressure on future federal and state dollars," the statement noted.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

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