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Illinois a big winner under Obama's high-speed rail plan
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff

High speed trains like this one in China may be traveling between Chicago and St. Louis.

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Published: 1/28/2010 7:36 AM | Updated: 1/28/2010 6:25 PM

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A faster train trip from Chicago to St. Louis through Springfield may not mean that much unless you're a Cardinals fan or state lawmaker - but supporters of high speed rail say an influx of federal funding also means jobs.

President Obama announced the distribution of $8 billion in economic stimulus funds for fast trains Thursday in Florida. Illinois will receive $1.23 billion with the bulk of the money going to build high-speed rail from Chicago to St. Louis and eventually Kansas City.

Twenty-four states competed for the cash, seeking a collective $50 billion with California receiving the lion's share of $2.3 billion and Florida garnering $1.3 billion.

The high-speed rail route to St. Louis along Amtrak tracks was expected to cost more than $4 billion but state Rep. Elaine Nekritz said the grant is a big start.

"I'm disappointed it wasn't more, but we have a significant down payment and we're one of only three states to get more than a billion dollars, the Northbrook Democrat said.

Aside from the speedy trip which should allow trains to reach 110 mph from Joliet to Alton, it should encourage economic development, she said.

"It's investing in infrastructure," Nekritz added. "The U.S. Department of Commerce has said that for every $1 billion invested in infrastructure, it creates 20,000 jobs."

The state is also pledging more than $800 million for rail projects, added Nekritz, who is chairman of the House Railroad Industry Committee.

Joseph DiJohn, transportation professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noted that "the incremental improvement from 110 mph service is much less than the true high-speed rail of 220 mph. Therefore, the public might be disappointed."

But the federal grant does include some planning funds for a 220 mph Chicago-St. Louis route, said DiJohn, director of the Metropolitan Transportation Support Initiative at UIC's Urban Transportation Center.

Nekritz said it's estimated the St. Louis route could be operating at 110 mph in two to three years. The improvements could allow Chicago passengers to reach St. Louis in four hours, about 30 percent faster than currently.

Overall, the Midwest region received about $2.6 billion in funding, according to the Metropolitan Planning Council. Projects included $244 million for Michigan, Indiana and Illinois to work on high-speed rail from Chicago to Detroit to Pontiac. Another initiative is $823 million to start making improvements to tracks between Milwaukee and Madison, eventually leading to high-speed rail service between Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and the Twin Cities.

"The awards to Wisconsin and Michigan for Chicago-Milwaukee and Chicago-Detroit will benefit our region, too," DiJohn said. "Benefits will be construction jobs, better service and reduced highway and air congestion.

"We were chosen because Chicago is the hub of the nation's freight and passenger service in the U.S. These three routes alone account for 41 of Amtrak's 300 daily trains. Springfield, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Detroit all fall into the short to intermediate distance cities where fast, convenient train service will best compete with air and highway and should see the greatest usage."