Latest Study Likes Iowa City Route for Amtrak Omaha Service

By Steve Gravelle, Reporter

FILE - In this March 22, 2011 file photo, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin are joined by state and local officials as they announce the next phase of high-speed rail construction during a news conference at an Amtrak maintenance building in Chicago. On Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, Quinn, Durbin and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will take part in a test run of the high speed Amtrak line between Joliet and Normal, Ill., at 110 mph. The 30-mph increase from the route�s current top speed is a morale booster for advocates of high-speed rail who have watched conservatives in Congress put the brakes on spending for fast train projects. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

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By Liz Blood

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Preparations to bring passenger trains back to the Quad Cities are still on schedule, and there remains no immediate prospect to extend service across Iowa. But planners know which route to take if Iowa's prospects improve.

"This helps us show that it’s feasible all the way across the state on that route," said Tammy Nicholson, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation's office of rail transportation.

A feasibility study nearing completion is likely to settle on the Iowa Interstate route through Iowa City and Des Moines to Council Bluffs and Omaha. That's the same line chosen three years ago to extend Chicago-Moline service to Iowa City - a plan stalled by opposition from Gov. Terry Branstad and state House Republicans.

Nicholson said public hearings on the study will be held in December, with completion early next year. Funded by the state and federal governments, the study would put the state in a position to apply for any federal rail aid that becomes available.

"It helps set that foundation," Nicholson said. "It helps answer, 'is this a state with a long term plan?'"

The study's authors investigated restoration of passenger service across all five of the historic rail routes across Iowa and decided Iowa Interstate's holds the most potential, Nicholson said. The Cedar Rapids-based railroad serves the larger population centers on its line across the state and has the capacity to handle the added traffic with the least environmental impact.

New trains to Omaha would supplement Amtrak's California Zephyr, one train a day in each direction on the BNSF Railway via Burlington, Mount Pleasant, Ottumwa, Osceola, and Creston.

Starting in 2015, Iowa Interstate will host the new Amtrak trains between Chicago and Moline west of Wyanet, Ill., about 111 miles west of Chicago. Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Josh Kaufman said engineering and design work is underway for a connection between Iowa Interstate and BNSF.

BNSF crosses Iowa Interstate on a bridge, but there's currently no physical connection between the two lines.

Amtrak's plans call for the new trains to operate over the BNSF between Chicago and Wyanet, where they'd use the new connection to gain the Iowa Interstate line for the run to Moline.

Work on the connection, estimated in 2007 to cost $5.6 million, will begin as early as next fall, Kaufman said. Work is also underway on the $10 million renovation of the historic O’Rourke Building into a multi-modal station that will include Moline's Amtrak stop, although a St. Louis developer recently abandoned its share of the project.

Iowa City service was included in early planning for the new route, but Branstad and legislative Republicans don't want the state to cover its $3 million-a-year operating susbsidy.

In September, the Illinois DOT announced participation in a $352 million order for 130 bi-level rail cars. Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri will receive 88 of the cars.

Illinois planners are negotiating with the Canadian National railroad and Amtrak on restoring service between Chicago and Dubuque, Kaufman said. He said Illinois DOT and Amtrak are "discussing potential infrastructure improvement options and hope to come to a finalized agreement this winter."

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