Thursday, January 6, 2011

Iowa to give back high speed rail funds as well?

A budget bill proposed today by Republicans who have taken control of the Iowa House of Representatives could be a death blow to plans for daily Amtrak passenger train service between Iowa City and Chicago.

That’s because the bill would not provide state money needed to establish and subsidize operations for the route, which could force the Iowa Department of Transportation to return a federal grant of $81.4 million already awarded for the passenger train project.

The Iowa Legislature has previously committed $10 million for Iowa’s share of the train project, and lawmakers have been asked to appropriate an additional $10 million in start-up costs. In addition, state officials have estimated it would require another $3 million annually in Iowa taxpayer subsidies to keep the train running to Iowa City.

State Rep. Scott Raecker, an Urbandale Republican who will chair the Iowa House Appropriations Committee, said Monday he is reluctant to provide any taxpayer money for passenger train service, especially because of the need for ongoing subsidies to run the train in future years.

“We have to be cautious about making out-year commitments before we can fund things like K-12 education, which is $231 million short. We also have a $600 million hole in Medicaid,” he added.

Raecker said he anticipates that the Iowa City to Chicago train “will be a point of discussion and debate as we move through the process, whether or not that should or should not remain in the bill.”

The Iowa Department of Transportation received a federal grant of $81.4 million in October to help establish the Chicago-to-Iowa City train in a partnership with the Illinois Department of Transportation, which received $148.6 million in federal money. But Iowa’s entire share of federal money will be lost if Iowa doesn’t proceed with the train project, federal officials have said.

Nancy Richardson, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation, said the loss of state funding for the Iowa City passenger train “would obviously leave a hole” because Iowa’s application for federal money was based on securing matching state money.

“It would be a very serious blow, but we would need to look and see if there are other options for coming up with this match,” Richardson said.
That would include private money, contributions from local governments or other sources of state funding, she explained.

The passenger train would still likely operate between Chicago and the Quad Cities because the Illinois Legislature has already appropriated money for the Illinois section of the project to proceed.

While the House Republican bill doesn’t specifically address plans for a proposed Chicago-to-Dubuque passenger train, Richardson said the proposal may not bode well for Dubuque-bound rail service. Illinois lawmakers have agreed to provide state funding for a train running from Chicago to the Iowa border at Dubuque, but Iowa needs to provide some money in start-up costs and ongoing operational costs, neither of which have been determined yet, she said.

Richardson added that Iowa DOT officials are exploring the possibility of obtaining a federal grant to help cover some of the costs of a Dubuque passenger train.

Giving back the funds rather than investing them in this rail line would be a truly short-sighted move. $20.6 million dollars over four years is an extremely small portion of an annual six billion dollar budget and can easily be covered by bonds if there is truly no other option. With an expected ridership of nearly 250,000 per year on four daily trains (two round-trips), the result is a 73% passenger capacity and fares likely covering a large portion of the subsidy, which would not be paid until four years from now, in 2015. Ridership may be even higher than that as the Positive Train Control mandate requires installation upon passenger lines by 2015. By the end of the first year, maximum speeds, then, should be raised up to 90 miles per hour or faster, dependent upon track condition, increasing the attractiveness of the rail service and hence its patronage.

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