New Governor Raises Hopes for Reviving Illinois Service

Northern Illinois rail passenger advocates are looking to a new governor to help jump start efforts to reinstate intercity rail passenger service between Chicago and the Quad Cities region of Illinois and Iowa, and between Chicago and Rockford, Illinois.

J.B. Pritzker recently ousted incumbent Governor Bruce Rauner whose administration had not been supportive of the proposed services, which were announced in 2014.

Also giving supporters hope is a favorable vote on an advisory referendum to create a station in Rockford for the proposed service.

A Rockford area state lawmaker, though, still sees a struggle to get the service going.

“It’s gonna be expensive – it’s gonna be a major effort, and if there’s not the political will to do it locally, then we should not head down that path,” said State Senator Steve Stadelman.

Stadelman, though, called the election of Pritzker a new opportunity.

He said he plans to meet with local leaders to gauge their support for the rail service.

Stadelman noted that the new governor has talked about the importance of transportation infrastructure. “I hope he’s willing to take a look at the idea,” Stadelman said.

During the Nov. 6 election, voters in Rockford and Boone and Winnebago counties gave 79 percent approval to the referendum question.

During the administration of former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, the estimated cost of the proposed service was put at $230 million.

The service would serve a region that has lacked intercity rail service for several decades.

Until 1978, the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific operated a train known as the Quad City Rocket between Chicago and Rock Island, Illinois. That train ran for the final time on Dec. 31.

Amtrak operated the Black Hawk between Chicago and Dubuque, Iowa, between Feb. 17, 1974, and Sept. 30, 1981.

The Black Hawk served Rockford and Freeport and ended during a state budget crunch.

In recent years, the Illinois Department of Transportation has studied reviving Amtrak service to Northwest Illinois using portions of the former Black Hawk and Quad City Rocket routes.

A new station was built in Moline, Illinois, which includes a hotel and shops.

“We’re hoping with the new administration that they’ll put a higher emphasis on passenger rail and keep it moving,” said Ray Forsythe, planning and development director with the City of Moline. We’re pretty excited.”

Funding for the revival of Northwest Illinois intercity rail service was included in the 2009 capital bill, the last one adopted by the Illinois General Assembly.

Lawmakers earmarked $150 million for Amtrak expansion for both the Quad Cities route and service to Dubuque via Rockford, along with money for rail upgrades for the existing line between Chicago and St. Louis.

Initially, the state planned to launch service to Rockford and extend it later to Dubuque.

Service to the Quad Cities was to use a BNSF route already used by other Amtrak trains to Wyanet, Illinois, and then switch to the Iowa Interstate, which owns the former CRI&P tracks.

The Federal Railroad Administration awarded $177.3 million in 2011 to IDOT to complete planning, environmental review, design and construction of the Quad Cities line, with the goal of having two round trips daily.

But Rauner’s inauguration in 2015 resulted in the Northwest Illinois rail service projects being put on hold.

In late 2016, IDOT resumed talks with the Iowa Interstate about using its tracks.

The two parties are discussing track upgrades, including installation of positive train control.

Also on the docket is the connection between the BNSF and Iowa Interstate lines.

However, negotiations with Union Pacific to use its tracks for the Rockford service have not resumed.

IDOT officials have not given a timeline as to when the services might be launched.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the carrier is interested in operating the Rockford and the Quad Cities routes because studies have found both have high potential for passengers.

Officials say that key to getting the routes started will be passage of another capital bill in the legislature.

A spokeswoman for Pritzker said he is committed to “working across the aisle” to get that done so that it can be used to attract federal grant money.

However, rail advocate will be competing for funding with such other infrastructure needs as roads, water systems and transit agencies.

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