Midwest states push high-speed rail system

| Copy Chief

The push for high-speed rail in the Midwest picked up steam last week, when eight Midwestern states applied for stimulus money to pave the way for speed upgrades to the rail network that have some policymakers and students excited.

The states, Missouri and Illinois among them, are vying for a slice of the $8 billion in stimulus money available for rail projects. The goal is a 110-mph train network that would be centered in Chicago and link up with 11 other metropolitan areas, including St. Louis.

Supporters say the network would foster economic development, bring jobs to the Midwest, take cars off the road and reduce travel times.

“It would just revolutionize travel in our economy, in this region,” said U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, a member of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It would not only link us to Chicago. It would also link the two largest cities in Missouri, and most of our population will have access to that.”

Proponents do not yet know exactly how to cover the $12 billion total cost for the network—stimulus money would cover only a small fraction, and state funding could be difficult to secure due to the recession. The states are focusing on incremental upgrades to their routes as funding becomes available.

Illinois’ route from Chicago to St. Louis could be among the first to hit the 110 mph mark. The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), meanwhile, is looking to upgrade the top speed of the state’s St. Louis-Kansas City route from 79 mph to 90 mph, though 110 mph is still far away, said Rodney Massman, administrator of the rail section for MoDOT.

Students traveling on the St. Louis-Chicago route would likely see their travel times drop from over five hours to around four hours, if the route gets the speed upgrade.

Most students when interviewed said they were unfamiliar with the proposed upgrades. But some said they would be more open to using trains after the speed upgrades.

Junior Robbie Gilchrist, a St. Louis-area resident, said driving and taking a bus are currently the quickest ways for him to get to Chicago. Upgrading the Chicago-St. Louis route’s top speed to 110 mph and reducing the travel time to four hours, he said, would make him more likely to travel by train.

“Trains have a lot of stops and slowdowns between here and Chicago,” Gilchrist said. “So speeding it up and also improving the efficiency would make it more viable to use, not to mention the jobs that would be created.”

Decades down the road, some advocates want to build a new rail network in the Midwest with top speeds of 220 mph.

Funding the upgrades

Upgrading to 110 mph could prove difficult enough, however, due to the financial costs.

Competition for stimulus money will be intense—many states are seeking similar money for their own rail projects. Carnahan said he is pushing to get the funding for Missouri approved.

The recession has also dropped states’ tax revenues, dimming the prospects of additional state funding for the network.

Illinois has already poured millions into the Chicago-St. Louis route. Because it has already made some improvements to the route, the state may be able to upgrade the top speed to 110 mph much sooner—which could improve the state’s chances of getting stimulus money.

Ben Reeser, financial coordinator for MoDOT, said 95 percent of MoDOT’s total budget goes toward highways, with very little for rail. The state has not funded high-speed rail to this point, and getting funding from the legislature could prove challenging due to the economy, he said.

Although MoDOT receives substantial funding from the Missouri’s fuel and vehicle taxes, the Missouri Constitution specifies that those revenues can go only toward highways and bridges, Reeser said. Other modes like rail are funded almost exclusively with federal money and through the general budget and must therefore compete with other state programs as the economy continues to hurt states’ tax revenues.

Missouri tax revenues have fallen 10 percent this fiscal year, and state lawmakers say nearly $1 billion in general budget cuts could be needed next fiscal year, which will likely force new projects to the shelf as the state figures out just how to keep existing programs afloat.

“It’s just not a good scenario right this year to be looking for additional funding for everything,” said state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, vice chairman of the Missouri House Budget Committee. “We’re going to look at holding on to what we can and minimize the cuts.”

State Sen. Jim Lembke, R-South St. Louis County, said the chances of the General Assembly funding high-speed rail next year are “slim to none.”

Missouri has long had a debate over how it funds certain modes of transportation, with some arguing the state should shift some funding from roads to other modes.

Former Missouri Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, said he supports high-speed rail and said the state should transition some of its transportation needs from roads to water, rail and possibly air.

“We can’t continue to expand the road system and not have a growing population,” Holden said. “The tax base just can’t sustain it.”

No fast track to 220 mph

Some advocates say that upgrading top speeds even further, to 220 mph, could make an even bigger economic impact and perhaps cut travel times nearly in half. Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association, said the lower travel times could boost productivity and innovation and take even more cars off the road.

“Since we’re more productive, more innovative, it will make the Midwest a more attractive place to be,” Harnish said. “We’re more likely to attract the kind of companies that we need in order to be successful.”

The costs would be higher than those for the 110-mph system; some estimate that it would cost $12 billion for a 220-mph route between Chicago and St. Louis.

Carnahan said it will be important to take a step-by-step approach to the high-speed rail project.

“We know we’re not going to go from where we are today to 200-mph trains,” Carnahan said. “But I think the realistic steps are to get to those 110-mph trains that I think could really revolutionize the way we can travel within our own state.”

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