Trying to Keep Hope Alive: High-Speed Rail in Illinois

Despite the rejection of high-speed rail in many states, Illinois is trying to revive it. The Illinois Department of Transportation recently made a cooperative agreement with Union Pacific and Amtrak to fund passenger rail improvements for its line from Chicago to St. Louis with a $1.1 billion federal high-speed rail grant. The project, to be completed in 2014, would make transit more efficient between the two cities, but as many other states have realized, the numbers indicate that this efficiency is not worth the cost or the trouble.

The high-speed trains set to carry passengers 284 miles from Chicago to St. Louis would do very little to drastically change the commute experience. When the Illinois Department of Transportation first applied for this grant one year ago, they claimed that the trains would cut travel time between the cities from 5 hours 20 minutes down to 4 hours 10 minutes. However, current estimates now put the trip time at around 4 hours 32 minutes. As with every high-speed rail proposal, it seems, planners set the bar too high and end up either spending more than the public bargained for or overestimating the benefits of these billion dollar projects. How efficient will high-speed rail be if it costs more than people can afford and does relatively little to enhance the commute?

Union Pacific’s terms in the agreement are not settling for riders either. According to CEO Jim Young, the company’s priority is “to protect Union Pacific’s ability to provide the exceptional freight service our customers need and expect,” and not necessarily passenger rail operations. Not only that, but there are no consequences stipulated in the agreement for if the railroad fails to meet on-time performance standards for passenger service, stipulations withdrawn from the initial agreement by the Federal Railroad Authority. High-speed rail was advertised to the public who would be paying for it with tax dollars and the divergence of their tax dollars from the state’s other pressing needs, but those developing the system do not seem as concerned with this large pool of customers.

Local governments all over the country are recognizing the flaws with high-speed rail projects and are starting to act. The incoming governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have cancelled plans for a high-speed rail line while Florida governor Rick Scott doubts the cost effectiveness of what Michael Grunwald of TIME magazine calls a “glorified Disney shuttle.” Many inside and outside of California have also vehemently voiced their opposition to the “railroad to nowhere,” a line that would connect Corcoran and Bakersfield and would be the first costly step in its overall plan to connect San Francisco and Anaheim. Since projects are stalling in many other states as well, it might be worth it to take a second look at the necessity of high-speed rail at the present time.

The influx of Republicans into Congress along with this local opposition may pressure the Obama administration to cut back funding for high-speed rail and work on fixing the deficit. However, this high-speed rail grant for Illinois shows that the federal government is not about to abandon the pipe dream yet.

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Framing the HSR debate

The tone of your opening statement seems to imply some kind of populist rage against HSR, however, from what I understand, the recently elected governors of just two (not so many) states, Wisconsin and Ohio, have declined to accept federal grant money for high speed rail projects. How is it possible for a commentator writing from Chapman University in Orange California to measure the popular sentiment on rail service in the Midwest? En route to visit my family over Thanksgiving, I rode the Lincoln line from Chicago to Springfield. The train stopped five times along the way with a total trip duration of nearly five hours. Clearly this is unacceptable and improvements are needed. In addition, the end of the commentary claims

Local governments all over the country...

but then goes on to discuss Wisconsin and Ohio. Again with this populist rhetoric. A local government would be a municipality or at most a county-level administration. The reality is this is an opposition movement of just two people: Strickland and Walker. Keep in mind the WISDOT has been studying HSR since 1993 and applied for the grant money by choice-no one forced WISDOT to apply for the grant. But hey, Scott Walker, who promises to dissolve the state's department of commerce, must know better, right?