Vicary: Amtrak route flip-flop a colossal mistake

The city of Genoa was stunned to learn on April 10 of Gov. Pat Quinn’s complete reversal of his previous decision to begin Amtrak service between Chicago and Galena.

Rather than use what the three studies had identified as the best option, the southern route through DeKalb County and the city of Genoa, we were astounded to hear that the state wants to spend nearly $250 million on only a partial project using the worst alternative, the northern route through Huntley and Belvidere.  

Quinn previously stated that “Illinois is committed to creating jobs and promoting economic development by linking our cities, businesses and universities through passenger rail,” and that “the selection of the southern route does the best job of accomplishing those goals safely and cost effectively.” 

Quinn stated a commitment to linking universities, and the southern route would assist Northern Illinois University, the only major public college in Illinois without rail access. The northern route will not.

Gary Hannig, the governor’s previous transportation secretary, had said “The southern route offers the best deal for travelers and taxpayers.”

State officials had said the southern route was chosen for cost, ridership, safety, and performance based on an independent study by URS Corp., whom they cited as one of the country’s top engineering design firms. URS’ analysis showed that the route through Genoa would require a $26.2 million investment in upgraded infrastructure between Chicago and Rockford. But now the State wants us to believe it’s a better deal to spend almost 10 times that to get to Rockford. 

The city of Genoa is mystified why the state abruptly reverted to the worst alternative from Amtrak’s own routing study. We know the state could not yet make a deal with the Canadian National Railroad.

But Quinn claims that he will continue this Amtrak service from Rockford to Galena, the original purpose of this entire effort. The only rail tracks between Rockford and Galena belong to Canadian National.

So how does the state ever get to Galena? They still have to make a deal with Canadian National. And the CN railroad section from Rockford to Galena is where it appears most of the upgrading cost is, anyway.

So if the state truly intends to go to Galena, why has Quinn picked the most costly way to do it? He plans to pay $223 million for the worst set of tracks to Rockford and then still have the costly portion of the CN deal on the only tracks running from Rockford to Galena. And what incentive does the CN Railroad have now to make a deal with the State after they get blamed for the Governor’s turnabout, and half the route is cut out of the package? 

If the state could not reach an agreement with the CN Railroad on the southern route to Rockford, how do they ever expect to get a deal made to get to Galena from Rockford, what additional money will that cost, and from where is that coming from in a state with huge financial problems? We know our residents are fed up with waste funded by “temporary” tax increases.

The northern route Quinn is now choosing had substantially less ridership compared with the southern route, and that low ridership will be cut even further by only going to Rockford. Illinois taxpayers will have to pay much more year after year in operating subsidy because of much lower ridership.

Amtrak’s study showed that after the route through Genoa, the next best option, the Iowa, Chicago and Eastern rail line, offered a better alternative to Rockford than the northern route for which Quinn is reversing his decision. Unlike the northern route, at least the I.C.E. route could service Rockford International Airport. Did the state even consider this second-best alternative to the southern route, or was this just an arbitrary decision?

It has been over 30 years since the previous Amtrak service was lost due to low ridership. Amtrak Service from Chicago to Galena lasted only from 1974 to 1981. Why repeat this failure? The previous operation did not take advantage of the 652,000 more Northern Illinois residents serviced on the southern route.

Proper routing is essential to ensure the highest potential ridership to make this Amtrak route successful. If this Amtrak service fails again, it will be a waste of $223 million in taxpayers’ money.

• Mark Vicary is mayor of the city of Genoa. Reach him at 815-784-2327.