» Passage by State Senate needs to be followed by House approval; Illinois would be third in the nation to specifically plan for very fast trains.
Considering the infusion of federal funds earlier this year for the state’s rail system to be only a first step towards a truly upgraded network, the Illinois State Senate last week almost unanimously approved a measure that would create a commission to evaluate the implementation of true high-speed rail service there. If passed as expected by the State House and signed by the Governor, bill SB 2571 would make Illinois the third in the country after California and Florida to actively promote the implementation of trains operating at over 150 mph.
In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation allocated $1.13 billion for upgrades to the St. Louis-Chicago mainline, enough to speed trains to 110 mph and connect the cities in just four hours. Then, in February, the state received $100 million in TIGER funds for its CREATE project, which will clear up freight and passenger rail congestion south of Chicago.
In addition, with significant support from Democratic Governor Pat Quinn, Illinois has already committed $400 million of its own funds to advancing rail internally, the second-highest state contribution after California. The Golden State’s citizens made a $10 billion pledge in 2008.
The Illinois Senate’s bill will create the Illinois and Midwest High-Speed Rail Commission whose mission will be to develop by March 2011 a roadmap for true high-speed service in the state. Though the legislation does not designate a specific corridor for future investment, the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, which passes through Champaign (location of the primary branch of the state university) and Springfield (the state capital), has already been studied for 220 mph operations and closely matches in demographics of some of the world’s most well-used fast train systems.
The bill would encourage the commission to explore how to create a public-private partnership (PPP) to design, build, and operate a fast rail network and provide recommendations about how to fund the system. The mess that followed Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s privatization of its parking meters seems to have had no effect on the interest of Illinois legislators in putting what is clearly a public good into private hands. There is little actual evidence that PPPs have been successful in reducing taxpayer expenditure on new high-speed rail lines.
Nonetheless, the commission has yet to announce its conclusions about financing and route selection. Nor does it have the right to single-handedly institute new revenue sources, meaning that construction of a true high-speed line is in no ways assured. The Chicago-St. Louis corridor alone would likely cost at a minimum $12 billion to upgrade to 220 mph top speeds, fast enough to allow for a two-hour link between the cities. In the middle of a recession, Illinois will not be willing to pass over such funds without serious preliminary study, and nor will the federal government, which is likely to be handing out billions of dollars in further rail grants over the next decade.
Political agreement on the creation of the commission, coming from both Democrats and Republicans in the State Senate, underscores the sense among Illinois residents that Chicago should be the nation’s rail capital. It also suggests that there is common ground in the thinking that current plans for 110 mph service won’t provide the kind of speed improvements necessary to take full advantage of the rail system, a reasonable assessment. Yet while the creation of the commission is a definite advance, the state will have to commit more funds if it wants to compete with California and Florida for true high-speed rail.
Image above: Chicago Union Station, from Flickr user egvvnd (cc)