Senate hearing airs debate over expanded passenger rail service through central Iowa


February 12th, 2013 by Ric Hanson

Advocates of expanding passenger rail service from Iowa to Chicago say there could be a side-benefit for trains that haul freight. Jeff Kurtz is with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “If we do the infrastructure improvements necessary where passenger trains and freight can go-exist, we won’t have to worry about clearing slow-moving trains,” Kurtz says. “Delays cost money…Hopefully as a state we will move in that direction as we move to invest in rail.” Kurtz is among seven people who testified before the Senate Transportation Committee late Monday afternoon to tout the idea of expanding passenger rail service from Chicago to the Quad Cities, Iowa City, Des Moines and Council Bluffs.

Grinnell Mayor Gordon Canfield is also president of the Iowa Association of Railroad Passengers. “As our interstate highway system becomes increasingly clogged with heavy traffic or when the roadways are slick with snow and ice, many people would prefer the safety and convenience of trains to go to Chicago or Omaha and beyond,” Canfield said. Geoff Fruin, the assistant city manager of Iowa City, used to work in Normal, Illinois, a city where he said passenger rail service had been an “economic game-changer.”

“If you study the Amtrak ridership numbers, they’ve set records in nine of the past 10 years. If you dig down further and you look at the university communities in the Midwest, their ridership has grown even three or four times faster than the national level,” Fruin said. “Now, that tells me one thing, it’s that the younger generation really values passenger rail and the productivity of time and the access that it provides.”

In October of 2010, Iowa and Illinois won a 230-million dollar federal grant to expand passenger rail service, with the ultimate goal of a 110-mile-per-hour train running between Chicago and Omaha, the route for which could pass through Atlantic. However, when Republican Governor Terry Branstad took office in 2011, he raised concerns the state would have to sink too much money into the rail line. Iowa Department of Transportation staff are in the process of drafting a cost-benefit analysis. Republican legislators have also raised cost concerns, suggesting a private railroad company would already be running passenger trains through central Iowa if it were profitable.