PI Original Adam Doster Monday January 25th, 2010, 1:52pm

High-Speed Rail Heating Up

In a matter of weeks, Illinois officials will find out if the state has snagged billions from the federal government to jumpstart construction on a Midwestern high-speed rail corridor. In response, lawmakers convened a hearing last week to develop a plan to see that the money is used effectively. "On the eve of the Washington decisions," said State Sen. Martin Sandoval, "we need to pin down where Illinois is and where it's going."

Slowly but surely, momentum is building in Illinois for high-speed rail.

Last summer, the state kick-started things by agreeing to put up $400 million for inter-city rail construction via the capital construction bill.  Gov Pat Quinn also joined other Midwestern states in applying for billions in federal grants, which will be distributed sometime in the next three weeks. Meanwhile, Congress appropriated another $2.5 billion for high-speed rail, at the behest of transit advocates and state lawmakers, via the 2010 omnibus spending bill. The White House will likely call for additional allocations when President Obama releases his FY 2011 budget. And some of that money will certainly make its way to Illinois. Unless a Republican wins this year's gubernatorial race and decides to throw on the brakes, we will soon see faster trains traversing the Land of Lincoln.

Now that the funding spigot has opened, local lawmakers want to make sure that the state is prepared to use the money effectively. At the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago Friday, the Illinois Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing to learn about the best domestic and international rail practices. "On the eve of the Washington [grant] decisions," said chairman Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago), "we need to pin down where Illinois is and where it's going."

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, the only Chicago-area congressman on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, stressed the importance of sufficient coordination between officials in the Statehouse and Capitol Hill.  He pointed out that when the state puts some skin in the game, it reassures members of Congress -- who distribute the grants and appropriations -- that Illinois is worthy of their attention.

The state's commitment to high-speed rail could pay more dividends this month, when the Senate takes up its jobs measure. (The House version spent $10 billion on transit infrastructure projects). And in 2011, the state could position itself well to capture new funding from the surface transit reauthorization bill, which could include $50 billion more for a nationwide high-speed rail system.

Because most current and incremental plans would require the new trains to run on existing tracks, CREATE -- the promising (but so far unrealized) program to untangle freight congestion in the Chicago region -- needs to be prioritized, as well. "You can't have high-speed rail if you do not fund and finish CREATE," Lipinski testified. "If you leave those knots, you can't do it." The state allocated $322 in capital bill funds to finance the project and officials hope to secure $300 million in stimulus grant money.  But much more support is needed.

Of course, the planning process is still in its early stages. If state and regional officials committed a steady stream of resources and energy to the project, Illinois could build a European-style high-speed rail system, one that would run at 220 miles-per-hour on dedicated tracks and serve as a national transit model for decades to come.

Guillaume Genin, an official from the French national railroad operator SNCF, presented evidence that such a proposal is not a pipe dream, even with the state's budget currently in shambles. After conducting a comprehensive $500,000 study into the viability of high-speed rail in the Midwest corridor, Genin concluded that a well-designed system -- particularly one that picks up riders "where they are," such as at airports and other transit nodes -- is a worthwhile investment. "It's the right time," he told the committee, "for true high-speed rail."

How can we get it done? Building out connections from Chicago to St. Louis, Cincinnati, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis would cost $68.5 billion initially, 54 percent of which the public would subsidize. That means over the period of 20 years, the state would need to front $38 billion, most of which could be bonded. Travel costs would be comparable to other high-speed systems, floating between $0.40 per mile for trips up to 400 miles to $0.24 per mile for trips beyond 600 miles. By 2028, SNCF estimates that the trains could generate over 42 million riders annually, which would more than cover operations costs and allow the network’s revenues to be used to repay the other 46 percent of construction costs. State Sen. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) said the cost estimate seemed conservative to her, but Genin stood by his organization's calculations. Sandoval told the crowd he was impressed by the research.

Whatever approach the state (and governor's office) decides to pursue, it's important that there be adequate legislative oversight for this large public works project, both in the planning and procurement process. Later in the hearing, the questions apparently got pretty heated when officials from the Quinn administration were pressed to ensure money wasn't funneled to freight operators.

One potential solution, floated by Illinois PIRG's Brian Imus, would be the establishment of a high-speed rail authority, filled with engineers and transit experts, to coordinate spending priorities and push the process along. Imus testified that a similar panel in California, established in 1996, has been "a big part of the success in California in generating support for 220 mph trains." (Read more about their work here.)

The most encouraging aspect of Friday's hearing was the size of the crowd. Over 100 people jammed into the small room on a Friday morning to hear what the transit advocates had to say.  One bewildered transit veteran, seated behind me, uttered a telling question minutes before the proceedings began: "When did high-speed rail become sexy?"

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