Eight Midwestern states, including Indiana, hope to secure federal stimulus money for a network of faster passenger trains with Chicago as its hub – joining forces to boost their chances of getting a cut of $8 billion set aside for high-speed rail.
The governors, including Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, said yesterday they have sent a joint letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asking him to support the initiative.
Longtime proponents of high-speed rail welcomed the show of unity, saying it should help in what’s sure to be stiff competition among states for the federal stimulus dollars. California and New York are among those vying for the funds.
“Getting eight governors to agree where to go to lunch is a challenge, so them agreeing on priority corridors is very good news,” said Kevin Brubaker, of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago. “We’ll still be competing with other states, but at least we’re competing on the same team rather than against each other.”
A spokesman for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who also signed the letter, agreed.
“If there’s a unified presentation, it will present a stronger case for us using some of these funds,” said Scott Holste.
Other governors who signed the letter were Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, Iowa’s Chet Culver, Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Ted Strickland of Ohio and Wisconsin’s Jim Doyle. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley also signed.
The multistate appeal comes days before the White House is expected to release further details about the kinds of projects that would qualify for the billions marked for high-speed trains.
The governors’ proposal, dubbed the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative and first conceived a decade ago, focuses on upgrading three existing routes by 2014 – one between Chicago and St. Louis, another between Chicago and Madison, Wis., via Milwaukee and a third between Chicago and Pontiac, Mich., through Detroit.
Long-term goals of the organization include upgrading existing train routes from Chicago to Indianapolis, Indianapolis to Cincinnati, and Chicago to Toledo.
Improvements to tracks and equipment on those routes should enable trains to reach speeds of 110 miles per hour, according to the governors’ letter. Currently, the top speed of trains on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor is just less than 80 mph.
Later phases of the project would improve other lines, including a route between St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo.
Neither the letter nor a statement from Nixon’s office specifies how much of the $8 billion the states want, though they do estimate that the project’s first and most critical phase would cost around $3.5 billion.
The benefits of higher speed trains would include boosting regional economies, as well as reducing highway congestion and U.S. dependence on foreign oil, the governors say.
The letter also singles out Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, saying that approval of funds for high-speed rail in the Midwest could improve the city’s chances of winning the games.
By all accounts, the $8 billion isn’t nearly enough to transform U.S. passenger service. Just one high-speed rail project on the drawing board in California, for instance, would cost more than $40 billion.
But Brubaker argued that implementing the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative plan could help demonstrate the benefits of high-speed rail, leading to more funding later.
“This is the right plan for right now for the region,” he said. “Would we like to see 200 mile per hour trains zipping around? Sure. But that’s not a realistic expectation right now given the federal funding.”
Last month, Illinois lawmakers made a similar request for federal stimulus money to upgrade the same Chicago-St. Louis route so trains can zoom at up to 110 mph, cutting current travel times between the cities by an hour or more.
At the time, authorities have warned Illinois won’t get trains traveling more than 200 mph, the speed of some already in Europe and Asia. That would require dedicated lines, ones with far fewer stops and without the multitude of crossing so common along U.S. railway lines.