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The federal government announced late last month that Amtrak service from Chicago to Dubuque, Iowa, would not get funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, prompting a pre-primary promise from Gov. Pat Quinn that the state would help pay for it instead.
The state’s commitment was welcome news across northern Illinois, but it was perhaps most welcome to Rockford-area officials, who saw an opportunity to reignite a debate that once had been settled: Will the train go through Genoa or Belvidere?
Last year, the Illinois Department of Transportation selected a route that would take Amtrak through Rockford by way of Genoa, despite tremendous pressure from officials in Winnebago and Boone counties to select a path through Belvidere. IDOT chose the Genoa route because their study showed it would carry more people and cost less to upgrade.
What it doesn’t do, though, is provide partial funding to upgrade tracks that Rockford officials view as a path toward bringing commuter rail to the city.
For Rockford, it is not Amtrak, but Metra, that represents the primary goal. The Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning has called implementation of passenger rail its “top regional priority” for the Rockford region, and long has pushed to locate passenger (Amtrak) and commuter (Metra) rail on the same line.
Metra would be a fine addition to Rockford, but at what cost? RMAP estimates it will cost $247 million to get Metra there. That doesn’t include the estimated $10 million in annual operating expenses.
Despite the obstacles in the way for Metra, Rockford officials want the state to pay for an Amtrak route that’s estimated to cost an additional $11.5 million more than the Genoa route. That figure represents nearly 20 percent of the state’s entire $60 million investment in the project.
An optimistic report published by Boone and Winnebago counties last year highlighted a plan to establish passenger and commuter rail through a combination of stimulus and state money, followed by aggressive spending under the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program. After being shut out of ARRA funding, there’s no reason to expect a later windfall to be forthcoming from the FTA.
In fact, it’s clear from projects that did receive ARRA funding that building a domestic high-speed rail industry is a priority of this administration. That means the best bet in getting future federal funding is by using a less costly and less complicated route that can more easily be upgraded to allow for higher speeds. That means going through Genoa.
Rockford-area officials say the most important thing is to re-establish passenger rail service through the city, yet once again they’re using Metra to muddy the Amtrak issue. If they want passenger rail restored, the best thing they can do is derail the Belvidere bickering and get on board the Genoa route.