Officials Optimistic About Expanding Amtrak Service In Illinois

CHICAGO (CBS) — Proponents of expanded Amtrak service in Illinois are meeting today in Chicago and despite the state’s budget woes, they’re talking expansion.

It’s a far cry from a year ago, when Gov. Bruce Rauner threatened to cut the state’s Amtrak subsidy by 40 percent — and service by half. After months of negotiation and pressure from downstate officials, the Illinois Dept. of Transportation in February agreed to hold the line on funding.

Now, Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Rick Harnish has a renewed goal.

“We should be talking about expanding, and I am satisfied that the state is continuing to talk about expanding,” he said. “We’re going to expand Amtrak and we need to do it sooner, rather than later.”

Expansion could bring Amtrak to the Quad Cities and Peoria, neither of which has had direct passenger rail service since the early 1980s, when the old Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific R.R. collapsed. The Rock Island was never a part of Amtrak.

The top priority is one already in the works. Harnish has a commitment from the Rauner administration to provide 110-mile-an-hour service between Chicago and St. Louis — or, more properly, between Joliet and Alton — next year.

Harnish said the widely-held belief that passenger rail is Democratic issue and opposed by Republicans is a “misconception.”

“It isn’t really that clear-cut,” he said.

He said Republicans including Rauner, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and even Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — who killed high-speed Amtrak expansion between Milwaukee and Madison upon taking office — are all “moving forward important passenger rail expansion programs” in their states.

At the meeting, Amtrak outlined how it is attempting to transform Chicago Union Station into a multi-level shopping arcade while moving its ticketing and passenger lounge to the station’s Great Hall, in an attempt to eliminate crowding at Amtrak and Metra gates. And Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she remains supportive of a plan to run CTA express trains between the Loop and O’Hare Airport, utilizing the mothballed “Superstation” beneath Block 37. Preckwinkle voted to finance the project as an alderman. The half-finished station was mothballed because of huge cost overruns, and indications are that it will not be revived unless a private partner can be found to finish the project. More recent discussions of an O’Hare express service have focused on the use of existing, but upgraded, commuter and freight rail lines.

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