Originally published in The Daily Iowan 6/18/2009
The Iowa Department of Transportation will apply for $32.5 million in federal stimulus money to start passenger-train service that would serve Chicago and Iowa City and give Illinois students another way to travel between home and college.
Iowa Department of Transportation officials will send pre-applications to the Federal Railroad Administration by July 10, after which they will receive feedback on the plan, said Rebecca Neades, the vice president and director of public policy for the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce. This is so they can improve chances of the plan’s approval before sending it.
Dubbed the “Chicago Flyer,” the train will travel on existing — but improved — tracks from Iowa City to the Quad Cities and Chicago.
These tracks are currently being used only for freight trains, but Neades said the Flyer will make for a “smoother, faster ride.” The state DOT intends to eventually connect the tracks to Des Moines and Omaha.
Paul Rumler, the executive director of the Quad Cities Passenger Rail Coalition, said it has been a while since the federal government gave money for public transportation, but he isn’t surprised with this increase in interest.
“When gas prices go up, people look to passenger travel,” he said.
Jim Bohnsack, the chairman of the Quad Cities rail coalition, said the members expect a majority of the train’s passengers to come from student travel — roughly 5,800 Illinois natives attending the UI.
UI junior Maggie Mordis said she doesn’t have a car in Iowa City and she takes the Suburban Express bus to her home in Downers Grove, a Chicago suburb.
“It’s semi-cheap, and it picks you up at the IMU, which is right in town,” she said.
Mordis said she took Amtrak from the Mount Pleasant, Iowa, station — slightly more than 50 miles south of Iowa City — but she prefers the bus because it does not stop between Iowa City and Chicago.
Despite her preference for buses, Mordis said it would be better to have the second option of taking a train if there were a station near campus.
“Suburban Express fills up really quickly, so it’s hard to get tickets,” she said.
Students from outside Illinois could also benefit from the Chicago Flyer by transferring at Chicago’s Union Station.
UI senior Emily Larson used to fly home to Toledo, Ohio, but has since switched to the railroad.
“When gas went up, I started taking the train because it was more affordable,” she said.
Larson also said she prefers the nature of train travel.
“It’s a slower pace than a plane, but it makes you appreciate the landscape,” she said.
Larson said she would take a train from Iowa City, then transfer to a train headed from Chicago to Toledo.
But officials are thinking in faster terms — beyond the next five years, in fact. Neades said she anticipates more rail riders if Chicago wins a bid to host the 2016 Olympics.
Neades noted potential economic benefits to cities along its route.
“They need more hotel rooms so they are looking to the Quad Cities and Iowa City area to help with that,” she said.