Illinois Blocking Amtrak Expansion
Glenview, IL residents oppose plan to expand Hiawatha line from 7 to 10 round trips daily.
Despite the fact that rush hour trains on the Amtrak Hiawatha Service are regularly running at capacity, the Illinois Department of Transportation is pushing the pause button on a plan to expand service in the congested corridor.
The train, which runs between Milwaukee and Chicago with stops at General Mitchell International Airport, Sturtevant and Glenview, is the busiest passenger train line in the Midwest and one of the 10 busiest routes in the Amtrak system.
The state transportation departments in Illinois and Wisconsin have undertaken a joint environmental impact study for a $195 million project to increase the number of daily roundtrips from seven to ten.
Residents in Glenview, Illinois (population 44,692) aren’t pleased with the plan though, which would add a two-mile-long siding in their community for freight trains to idle. The village board voted in May to create a $400,000 fund to oppose the project, including funds for marketing, lobbying and litigation. Residents also oppose the loss of green space along the track and new bridges.
Glenview is joined in opposing the project by nearby Lake Forest (population 19,375).
In light of the strident opposition, IDOT is now pausing the study, which is currently in a public comment period.
Because it would be federally funded, the project’s environmental study is required to get a Finding of No Significant Impact from the Federal Transit Administration.
“Based on the feedback we received, it’s apparent more analysis and outreach are required before this project moves forward,” Illinois Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn said in a press release announcing the delay. “We will be asking our project team to perform that analysis and do the necessary outreach so the impacted communities are more involved in the decision-making process.”
There is no timeline for when the additional analysis will be completed.
Before the delay, Arun Rao, Passenger Rail Implementation Manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, told a Milwaukee Common Council committee in February that expanded service could begin running at 2023 at the earliest. The study has been underway since 2013.
In 2016, 815,196 rides were taken on the Hiawatha, a 2.4 percent increase over 2015.
Project Cost Details
“When you add an 80 miles-per-hour passenger rail to a corridor it takes up a lot of capacity,” Bauman explained. Operating in the corridor today, which is owned by Canadian Pacific in Wisconsin and the publicly-owned Metra commuter railroad in Illinois, are 65 Metra trains, 25 freight trains and 16 Amtrak trains (the Hiawatha and Empire Builder).
Adding a car to the trains, which currently seat 408 passengers, is prohibitively expensive because an additional conductor would be contractually required.
The federal government could pay for up to 50 percent of the project’s cost. To operate the line today, Wisconsin pays for 75 percent of the cost, with Illinois paying 25 percent. Hiawatha revenue pays for 75 percent of the service’s cost; a cost-recovery ratio far ahead of the Milwaukee County Transit System (26 percent) or the streetcar (estimated at 20 percent). Final design, which would start after the Federal Railroad Administration signs off on the plan, could lower the project’s cost through the process of formal engineering work.
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