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Public News Service: Time to Get WI Back on Track with High Speed Rail

9/19/14

Gov. Scott Walker turned down $810 million in federal stimulus money in 2010, saying state taxpayers would be on the hook for millions more in the years to come. Now, that money has gone to Michigan, where Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is using it to beef up connections between Detroit and Chicago. Learner says it’s not just about Madison and Milwaukee; high-speed rail would pull the entire region together.

“This is a time to put the ideology behind and for Wisconsin to say we want the better transportation, we want the jobs, we want the economic connectivity and growth that comes from modern higher-speed rail development,” says Learner. “The Gov. needs to go to Washington and say. ‘let’s step up and get Wisconsin back on track.’”

Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois recently announced the state is allocating an additional $102 million for the high-speed line that connects Chicago to St. Louis. In Minnesota they’re planning for a Zip Rail high-speed train that will connect the Twin Cities to Rochester.

According to Learner, Wisconsin has the opportunity to play catch-up and move forward, because it’s all about regional development.

“Connecting the Twin Cities to Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago, but also the cities in between that are being cut off from air services, where people face congestion delays and high prices of gasoline, and La Crosse, Brookfield, Oconomowoc, connecting those mid-size cities to the larger communities,” says Learner.

The Amtrak passenger train that runs between Chicago and Minneapolis is now regularly delayed because of the huge amount of rail freight carrying Wisconsin frac sand, and the oil from North Dakota that results from fracking.

Riding Amtrak to Chicago (But Banned to Madison)…

9/11/14

I sat in The Hiawatha’s “Quiet Car” earlier this week riding the rails to Chicago, plugged my phone into a wall socket and thought what a mistake Wrong-Way Walker made killing Amtrak expansion to Madison.

He did more than eliminate a  federally-funded, job-creating new line to Madison.

He also killed a comfortable, low-cost/no-TSA hassle-free Midwestern regional alternative to unpleasant plane or car travel, too.

On the Milwaukee-Chicago route, there are no tolls to pay, no road traffic congestion, no big parking fees when you get there.

And in an era of air rage, no fighting over disappearing leg room, no being scrunched into a middle seat, as the side-by-side wide Amtrak seats recline deeply.

And the trains are Wi-Fi enabled. My ticket cost $21. Downtown-to-downtown.

What Walker did, for political reasons, was target the UW community and Blue-voting Madison, reducing people’s options and denying Bucky simple, greener access to points East and West.

What was there not to like?

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Choo-Choo-Choosing a New Home for Ann Arbor’s Amtrak Station

9/11/14

When the Haute-Picardie was built between Paris and Lille in France, no one could complain that it didn’t have plentiful enough parking. In the middle of a beetroot field, 40 kilometers from the community it was meant to serve, it was nothing if not accommodating to cars, and planners hoped economic activity would naturally sprout up around the station. It did not. It instead became a reason rail stations with poor linkages to public transit and economic activity are called “beet stations.” Not exactly an honor. ( 

Access to parking is, of course, one of the many issues Ann Arbor’s current Amtrak station presents. Anyone who has lugged a suitcase from the current longterm parking area across the Broadway St. bridge to the station would likely agree. Linking to public transit from the tight constraints of Depot St. is no easy task either. But of the three locations now under review to become the site of a new Amtrak station, the original is still closest to the economic activity of downtown – and that’s no small consideration. According to Deputy Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago, Kevin Brubaker, it’s probably the most important factor in determining where to locate a train station – and far more important than parking.

“All of the activity of these people getting on and off trains, done right, creates a node of economic activity,” says Brubaker, citing restaurants, dry cleaners, florists and other retail as businesses that can serve train travelers. “You want to make sure the train station is in a place where you can capture that benefit.” 

How does a train station create and capture economic activity? Take the Amtrak station in Normal, IL, for example. Once a small, overwhelmed station – not unlike Ann Arbor’s – that faced the rear of the city’s downtown, the new station dedicated in 2012 has become a center of economic activity. Not only does the 68,000 station include a restaurant, retail and municipal offices, but the rear facades of the neighboring downtown buildings transformed into front facades, essentially turning downtown around to face the station. In 2013, the station brought in more than $5.6 million in revenue.

Ann Arbor is already the busiest Amtrak station in Michigan. With service improvements aiming to reduce the travel time to Chicago by two hours as well as create commuter opportunities for daily trips in and out of the city, the number of riders coming through the station is only expected to rise – as are the economic potential of all of those new visitors, workers, diners and shoppers coming into town. 

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News Tribune: Serious effort to create two passenger rail services from Peru to Chicago started

9/8/14

What if you could hop on a train in La Salle, Ottawa or Utica and take it to Union Station in Chicago?

Conversely, imagine the economic implications of vacationing Chicagoans hopping on a train to reach La Salle, Ottawa or Utica.

Decades ago, the above scenario happened all the time. A train route called the “Peoria Rocket” ran from Chicago to Peoria and back with a stop in La Salle.

And plans for something similar are underway for the Illinois Valley.

It’s called the Illinois Valley Public Transportation Plan.

It was initiated early this year by Illinois Department of Transportation and is now holding open houses to recruit economic leaders throughout the Illinois Valley to participate.

The plan calls for the creation of two passenger rail routes — Peru to Joliet and Peru to Aurora — via existing freight rail corridors.

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Chicago Sun-Times: Quinn announces $102 million investment for high-speed rail

9/2/14

A key swath of the high-speed rail line between Chicago and St. Louis is set to get $102 million in upgrades, Gov. Pat Quinn announced on Sunday.

Officials plan to build a second set of tracks between downstate Mazonia and Elwood and a new bridge over the Kankakee River between Joliet and Dwight.

The two-year project will reduce travel times between Chicago and St. Louis from five-and-a-half hours to four-and-a-half hours, Quinn said in a written statement.

Once completed, the improvements put the final upgrades in place between Joliet and Dwight in anticipation of the eventual double-tracking of the remainder of the Chicago-St. Louis corridor. This double-tracking will then allow more daily round-trips at increased 110-mph speeds. Trains now travel at 110 mph between Dwight and Pontiac.

The state has committed $358.8 million to the Chicago-St. Louis route, with the remainder of the $1.7 billion project federally funded.

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WSIL-TV: Illinois Lawmaker Speaks Out About Amtrak Delays

8/26/14

CARBONDALE — Senator Dick Durbin says problems with Canadian National are slowing down Amtrak riders from Carbondale to Chicago.

Durbin sent a letter to CN three weeks ago and says he’s still not received a response. He says the delays are caused by freight trains blocking passenger railways. Durbin wants Canadian National to move quickly on the problems.

Joined by Carbondale officials Saturday morning, Durbin pointed out the record levels of Amtrak delays along the Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale route. He calls it the worst in the nation for on-time performance.

“I want Canadian National to know, and all of the people that do business with the railroad, that we expect a response, a positive response to all of these issues including Amtrak service,” said Durbin.

Carbondale Mayor Don Monty, SIU, and Amtrak representatives were all there to share about rider experience. College students are a large population that use the train several times a year.

“Students like myself will go to a school to where they can have easy transportation to and from home, to and from other campuses,” said student Brione Lockett.

SIU students like Lockett and Derrick Langston said delays to and from Chicago are an inconvenience for them and parents. Langston has been dealing with the issue since his first trip in 2006.

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Associated Press: Indiana passenger rail extended 4 months

8/26/14

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana Department of Transportation and seven local partners have agreed to continue funding Hoosier State passenger rail service between Indianapolis and Chicago through Jan. 31 while the state negotiates with a private vendor to operate the line.

INDOT announced the four-month extension beginning Oct. 1 in a deal with Amtrak and the communities of Indianapolis, Beech Grove, Crawfordsville, Rensselaer, Lafayette, West Lafayette and Tippecanoe County.

INDOT is also negotiating with Corridor Capital LLC to improve the rail service and its funding model by the end of the contract extension in January.

Indianapolis initially planned to pull out of the funding arrangement Oct. 1, but public works spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson says it will continue paying $25,000 per month to give Corridor Capital time to succeed.

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TIME: The Truth About Obama’s High-Speed Rail Program

8/18/14

The New York Times has declared President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail program a failure. “Despite the administration spending nearly $11 billion since 2009 to develop faster passenger trains, the projects have gone mostly nowhere,” America’s paper of recordreported Aug. 6—in its news pages, not its opinion section. The story quickly rocketed into Republican talking points and conservative op-eds as fresh evidence of presidential haplessness.

But it’s wrong. The administration hasn’t spent anywhere near $11 billion. The projects haven’t gone mostly nowhere. There are legitimate questions about the high-speed rail initiative—and the administration’s hype has outstripped its ability to deliver in an era of divided government—but the public debate over the program has been almost completely detached from the reality on the ground.

Here’s the real story.

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New York Times Ed Board: Making the Case for High-Speed Rail

8/18/14

Most American passenger trains, including Amtrak’s popular Acela service, run at speeds that are far slower than the superfast European and Japanese trains that can zip along at 200 miles per hour or more. The main reason is that, despite modest investments, American lawmakers have not given high-speed rail the priority it deserves.

High-speed rail can play an important role in the nation’s transportation system by reducing congestion at airports and on highways. It can also provide a big economic boost while helping to reduce pollution that is causing climate change. That is why President Obama gave it an important place in the 2009 stimulus bill, which helped kick-start projects to upgrade rail lines and build new ones around the country.

Since then, the federal government has spent about $11 billion on high-speed rail, with only a few visible improvements in American passenger rail service, as a recent Times article pointed out. That should not come as a surprise. Bringing high-speed rail service to the United States was always going to take time and money. In 2012, Amtrak estimated that updating rail lines and trains between Boston and Washington to speeds of 220 m.p.h., up from the Acela’s average speed of about 84 m.p.h., would cost $151 billion. Even getting the Acela to travel at 160 m.p.h. for longer stretches will require laying new track, building new tunnels and replacing signals.

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The Atlantic: Why can’t the United States build a high-speed rail system?

8/15/14

Virtually every wealthy nation in the world has invested in a high-speed rail network—with the striking exception of the United States. From Japan toFrance, even from Turkey to Russia, trains travel through the country at speeds of 150 miles per hour or above, linking city centers and providing a desirable alternative to both air and automobile travel. Meanwhile, outside Amtrak’s 28 miles of 150-m.p.h. track in rural Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the American rail network is largely limited to speeds of 110 m.p.h. or less. There are few reasons to think the situation will change much in the coming decades.

So why has the United States failed to fund and construct high-speed rail?

The problem is not political process. Most of the countries that have built high-speed rail are democratic, and have submitted the projects to citizen review; others, like Germany and Russia, have federated governments similar to ours that divide general decision-making between levels of authority. Nor is it geography. The British and French completed a 31-mile tunnelunder the British Channel 20 years ago, while many American cities are located in flat regions with few physical construction obstacles. Nor is it the characteristics of our urban areas. While U.S. cities are less dense than those of many other countries, the Northeast is denser, more transit reliant, and more populated than most areas served by high-speed rail abroad. Nor still is it money. Though the United States invests less in infrastructure than other developed countries do, America nevertheless remains an immensely wealthy nation perfectly capable of spending on new rail links if desired.

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