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By Angela Cotey, associate editor
In 1996, a group of nine Midwestern state departments of transportation made a pact: They would work toward building a regional intercity passenger-rail network that links major cities in their states with trains traveling at speeds up to 110 mph. Since then, the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative (MWRRI) has been dedicated to improving and expanding intercity passenger-rail service throughout the region, with Chicago serving as a hub.
The 3,000-mile Midwest Regional Rail System, as it’s called, would provide significantly reduced travel times compared with current rail schedules, increased frequencies, improved reliability and new routes. The states have spent more than a decade planning the system and making some incremental improvements to speed trains between city pairs — especially in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan, where the states have ponied up funds to support Amtrak services and/or upgrade corridors.
But for the most part, the Midwest system hasn’t advanced. Cash-strapped states haven’t exactly been pouring money into intercity passenger-rail corridor upgrades. On the federal side, Congress appropriates money to Amtrak on an annual basis, but those funds go directly to the railroad; states historically haven’t been able to obtain federal funds to match any local intercity passenger-rail investments. As a result, most Midwest passenger-rail projects haven’t made it past the planning stage.
But that’ll soon change. As part of President George Bush’s FY2008 budget, Congress enacted the Capital Assistance to States-Intercity Passenger Rail Service Program, which established the first-ever federal-state partnership for intercity passenger rail investment. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) awarded $30 million in 50/50 matching grants to states, including Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Minnesota and Ohio, under the program in September 2008.
The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, signed into law last October, expanded the grant program, and also established high-speed rail corridor development and congestion relief programs under which states can apply for additional grants. And in February, President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), which included $8 billion for intercity and high-speed rail.
“I would say it’s a completely different world that we’re in now vs. just a year ago,” says Rod Massman, administrator of railroads for the Missouri Department of Transportation.
Today, Midwestern states are scurrying to fill out grant applications — most of which are due Aug. 24 — to obtain ARRA funding for ready-to-go projects while also re-evaluating long-range plans in anticipation of additional funding opportunities. Midwestern rail officials are hoping for a large chunk of the stimulus dollars to help build out the $9.6 billion Midwest Regional Rail System. Money would be used to replace and upgrade track, build additional sidings, install new signal and communication systems, and improve grade crossings to support intercity passenger speeds up to 110 mph.
“Our goal is to leap into this high-speed world,” says George Weber, bureau chief for the Illinois DOT’s (IDOT) Bureau of Railroads. “We think we have an ideal corridor to really get something up and running to show that the president’s plan will work by incrementally improving service.”
The states are ready to make that leap. For the past 13 years, state rail officials have conducted planning activities for the regional rail system — first to make sure it was viable, then to develop cost and travel time estimates, and, more recently, to conduct environmental work for specific corridors.
The state DOTs also have prioritized the various corridors included in the regional plan, and have been working to develop support and advocate for a federal program for intercity and high-speed rail initiatives. The group communicates often to refine corridor details and discuss program progress via quarterly face-to-face meetings and regular conference calls.
Now that federal funding opportunities are available, their efforts will pay off, Midwest rail officials believe.
“If we didn’t have all those planning activities done, we’d be a lot further behind right now,” says Massman.
That hasn’t been lost on key federal officials. Last month, Vice President Joe Biden called the Midwest regional rail system “one of the most comprehensive plans that have been put forward so far” after meeting with a group of eight U.S. governors to discuss high-speed plans. Deputy FRA Administrator Karen Rae has praised the Midwestern states for the way they’ve worked together so far.
And the various MWRRI states are making sure they promote their cause. In April 2009, the governors of eight of the nine MWRRI states (excluding Nebraska), as well as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood seeking federal support for the Midwest Regional Rail System.
The governors outlined three “Phase I” corridors that serve as the top MWRRI priorities: Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison, Wis., Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac, Mich. It will cost about $3.4 billion to make necessary track upgrades and purchase equipment to operate 110 mph trains on the three corridors, the governors said in the letter. If the states obtained federal stimulus funds to help cover the cost, the faster services — or, in the case of the Milwaukee-to-Madison corridor, new service — could be up and running between 2012 and 2014, they said.
That’s because the states of Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan have spent the past several years completing improvements on their own as funding became available.
In 2004, IDOT completed track upgrades on a 120-mile segment of the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, between Dwight and Springfield, Ill., to handle 110 mph trains. However, the state still must install a positive train control system (PTC) on the corridor before it can actually begin operating high-speed trains.
“We were going to install cab signals, but we were convinced by Union Pacific Railroad to wait for their form of PTC,” says Weber. “Railroads now have a mandate of 2015 to have PTC in place, so they convinced us to scrap the cab signal system because then we’d have to decommission it — it would have been a waste of money.”
In addition, IDOT will need to add capacity elsewhere on the corridor, likely by adding a second track to accommodate both freight and future high-speed passenger operations, and upgrade crossings with quad gates in areas where trains will be operating in excess of 80 mph, says Weber. The remaining work will cost about $1.8 billion, IDOT estimates, not including equipment costs.
IDOT’s goal is to provide eight round trips daily between the two cities, with service operating at up to 110 mph, reducing rail travel time from the current 5.5 hours to less than four hours.
IDOT also is working with its neighbor to the north to complete upgrades to the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison corridor. IDOT and the Wisconsin DOT (WisDOT) currently partner with Amtrak to provide Hiawatha service between Chicago and Milwaukee.
In recent years, the DOTs have worked to reduce travel times and add frequencies. The Hiawatha service currently includes seven daily round-trip trains between Milwaukee and Chicago. In addition, WisDOT has opened new stations in downtown Milwaukee and Sturtevant, Wis., and added a new stop at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport. WisDOT also is in the midst of replacing the 17.9 miles of remaining jointed rail on the Chicago-to-Milwaukee corridor.
The next step? Extending the Chicago-to-Milwaukee service to Madison, Wis., says Randy Wade, WisDOT’s passenger-rail manager. The department has completed preliminary engineering on the Milwaukee-to-Madison portion and in 2004, received a Finding of No Significant Impact from the FRA.
Since then, WisDOT has been working to install grade crossing warning devices along the route. WisDOT has purchased 32 miles of track from CP and Wisconsin Southern Railroad Co. between Watertown and Madison.
The department still needs to complete track, signal and other infrastructure upgrades on the corridor, as well as purchase equipment. In February, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle announced the state plans to apply for ARRA funds to complete remaining work on the line. The necessary track, signal and other infrastructure upgrades, as well as equipment purchases, will total well over $500 million, says Wade.
“As far as I know, we are the only corridor that’s been environmentally cleared [by FRA],” he says. “We’ve done a lot of work to set the groundwork for a successful ARRA proposal, so we think we’ll be very competitive.”
Ultimately, WisDOT wants to increase service frequency from Chicago to Milwaukee from the current seven daily trips to 10, maintaining the current speed of 79 mph, and eventually operate 110 mph trains on the corridor 17 times a day between the two cities. WisDOT also proposes to initially run six round trips daily from Milwaukee to Madison at speeds up to 110 mph, later expanding the service to 10 daily trips.
In Michigan, plans are well in hand to operate high-speed trains between Chicago and Detroit, and later on to Pontiac, Mich. During the past 10 years, the Michigan DOT (MDOT) — in partnership with Amtrak, GE Transportation and the FRA — has invested $40 million to install an Incremental Train Control System (ITCS) and complete associated upgrades on portions of the Chicago-to-Detroit corridor. The technology has been installed on a test area between Kalamazoo and Niles, where trains now operate at speeds up to 95 mph. MDOT is awaiting FRA approval to launch 110 mph operations on the corridor, hopefully by 2009’s end, says Al Johnson, unit supervisor for MDOT’s intercity passenger rail unit.
MDOT and its partners also have equipped an additional 20 miles of track with the train-control system from Niles, Mich., to just short of the Michigan/Indiana border.
“Amtrak was awarded some ARRA funds to extend that system to Porter, Ind., which would finish off a segment just east of Kalamazoo, and then we would have close to 100 miles of track equipped with the ITCS,” says Johnson.
If MDOT and IDOT obtained ARRA funds to upgrade the entire Chicago-to-Detroit corridor to handle 110 mph trains, they could triple the number of daily round trips between the cities from three to nine and cut trip times from five hours, 36 minutes to three hours, 46 minutes, said MDOT Director Kirk Steudle in an op-ed piece sent to Michigan newspapers last month.
It would cost about $1.3 billion to implement the high-speed service between Chicago and Detroit, including all infrastructure and station improvements, and equipment purchases. Michigan’s portion would cost about $850 million, says Johnson.
The Phase I corridors serve as the MWRRI’s top priorities, but many other services are planned as part of subsequent phases to build out the entire regional rail network — and states plan to apply for ARRA funds for those corridors, as well.
For example, the Missouri DOT (MoDOT) is working to improve state-supported Amtrak service between St. Louis and Kansas City, which would serve as an extension to the Chicago-St. Louis corridor.
The department currently is constructing a 9,000-foot siding in Jefferson City along Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The St. Louis-Kansas City corridor handles 22 to 25 freight trains daily, plus two round-trip Amtrak trains that “are going against freight traffic,” says MoDOT’s Massman.
MoDOT launched construction on the siding project last month. Funded through $5 million in state dollars and a $3.3 million FRA grant issued through the new intercity passenger rail capital improvement program, the project is scheduled to be complete by 2009’s end.
MoDOT officials also want to construct two more sidings, add track-to-track crossovers, improve a slew of crossings and upgrade a bridge along the corridor — all of which could qualify for ARRA funds, Massman says.
“We’ll submit the whole thing as a corridor program, splitting them into projects that are shovel-ready and projects that could be ready in six to eight months,” he says, adding that, while Midwestern states are applying for ARRA funding individually, all the projects are in line with the MWRRI.
“I’m not proposing some brand-new passenger-rail line that isn’t within those guidelines and I’m not proposing new frequencies that don’t meet the guidelines, and other states will do the same,” says Massman.
Including Ohio. The Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC) is planning the “3-C Corridor,” which would link Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati — cities that haven’t been served by intercity passenger trains since 1971.
“We were told by Amtrak early on in the feasibility study that this is one of, if not the most, under-served corridor in the United States,” says Stu Nicholson, public information officer for ORDC, an independent commission within the Ohio DOT. “We have 60 percent of Ohio’s population sitting within 15 miles of either side of the corridor.”
Amtrak currently is conducting a ridership and revenue study for the 3-C Corridor, scheduled to be complete by the end of August. ORDC also is working with a consulting firm to conduct a freight capacity study to identify infrastructure needs to operate passenger trains on the route in addition to the current freight traffic. That study is scheduled to be complete in early November.
ORDC expects to apply for ARRA funds for the corridor under the first round of high-speed and intercity grants, which will be issued by the FRA beginning in late summer.
“Ideally, we’d like to have trains up and running by 2011,” says Nicholson, adding that ORDC is proposing to initially operate two to three trains per day on the 265-mile corridor.
Longer term, ORDC is planning an Ohio Hub network that would link Ohio with cities such as Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, N.Y., and Toronto, with trains operating at speeds up to 110 mph.
“[3-C] is a beginning — we want to get passenger rail visible and reestablished and then start to make a case for further improvements to upgrade speeds, get more and new equipment, and expand to other cities,” says Nicholson.
The proposed service would connect with the Chicago Hub network via several Indiana cities — potentially, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Lafayette and/or South Bend. However, environmental work has not yet been conducted on any of the routes through Indiana, so exact alignments and alternatives have not yet been selected, says Mike Riley, manager of the Indiana DOT’s (InDOT) Rail Office.
As of press time, InDOT officials were working on “filling in the blanks” as far as what projects they would apply for ARRA funding for, says Riley. The FRA’s interim guidance for high-speed and intercity passenger rail was issued on June 17.
Officials at the Iowa DOT are positioning themselves to obtain federal intercity passenger rail funding, as well. Earlier this year, Iowa legislators appropriated $3 million to a passenger-rail revolving fund — the first time the state has committed funds for passenger rail, says Tammy Nicholson, director of the Office of Rail Transportation for the Iowa DOT.
“There are raised opportunities we’re seeing at the federal level and in order to compete for those federal dollars that are becoming available, we need to show we have a commitment to this,” she says.
The funds will help Iowa DOT partner with IDOT to launch passenger-rail service between Chicago and several Iowa cities.
In April 2008, Amtrak completed a feasibility study for a Chicago-to-Iowa City route that would pass through the Quad Cities. Ridership and revenue estimates are “very promising” says Iowa DOT’s Nicholson, adding that costs to get the service up and running with 79 mph trains, are manageable. It would cost $32.5 million to upgrade the Quad Cities-to-Iowa City portion of the corridor by installing continuous welded rail, ballast, ties and a signal system; Illinois’ portion would cost $22.7 million. Iowa DOT plans to apply for ARRA funding to conduct the work.
Iowa DOT and IDOT also estimate they would need $6.7 million to purchase rolling stock for two daily round trips between Chicago and Iowa City, as well as a $6 million annual operating subsidy from the states.
“We’re in discussions with Illinois about splitting the cost appropriately for that service,” says Nicholson.
Once funding is secured, it will take at least two years to launch service on the route, she says.
Iowa DOT also is working with IDOT to analyze launching service between Chicago and Dubuque.
“Most of that service would be in Illinois,” says Nicholson. “The feasibility study is done and we could implement the service at a low cost — $32 million — but that’s at for a low operating speed.”
In addition, Iowa DOT and IDOT have requested that Amtrak conduct a feasibility study for service between Chicago and Des Moines. Amtrak is interested in analyzing the route, but not until funding is secured for the Iowa City service, Nicholson says.
The route to Des Moines would be an extension of the Iowa City service. The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative calls for further extending that line to Omaha, Neb., in cooperation with the Nebraska DOT, which also is part of the Midwest compact.
Wisconsin has longer-term intercity passenger rail plans, too. WisDOT plans to eventually expand service from Milwaukee north to Green Bay, and from Madison to the Twin Cities. WisDOT currently is working with the Minnesota DOT to develop an ARRA application to conduct environmental work between Milwaukee and Minneapolis/St. Paul.
For its part, the Minnesota DOT has established a Passenger Rail Forum comprising key state stakeholders to “develop data-driven, collaborative decisions on further rail development,” according to the letter sent to LaHood.
“The forum will play a key role in completion and implementation of Minnesota passenger and freight rail plan,” the letter states. “These efforts offer a strong local foundation for Minnesota’s connection to MWRRI.”
Maintaining a strong connection between all the states involved in the Midwest regional rail network will be key for any of the states to obtain a portion of the stimulus funds. The FRA has suggested states that are willing and/or able to pony up some matching funds for the stimulus dollars (although it’s not required) would be strongly considered for the funds, as would multi-state plans to advance high-speed and faster intercity passenger rail networks. The Midwestern states are able to offer both.
Now, it’ll be up to the nine MWRRI states to continue working together while also advancing individual rail plans.
MWRRI recently received a grant from the FRA for almost $300,000 — equally matched by the states and Amtrak — to conduct additional planning work. The states will use the funds to review planning work to date, pour over cost estimates, examine equipment needs and coordinate a regional rolling stock pool, analyze PTC and standards interoperability and work with freight railroads on PTC implementation, and screen additional routes for further analysis, says WisDOT’s Wade.
The states also need to review train schedules so the various high-speed services connect, adds MoDOT’s Massman.
It remains to be seen how much, if any, of the stimulus dollars will be allocated toward the Midwest regional rail program. But as the various planning and funding pieces fall into place, it’s becoming increasingly likely that the MWRRI states soon will be able to make some real progress on their long-discussed plan.
“We’ve done a lot of planning, a lot of very preliminary stuff, but there’s been no major funding for actual projects,” says MoDOT’s Massman. “It’s interesting to see how the organization is going to morph from one that’s just talking about improving rail to one that’s actually doing it.”