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All aboard?

The feds are paying to upgrade Illinois' Amtrak stations, but train travelers might be left standing on the platform

by Kurt Erickson

City officials in Normal aim to resurrect their community's downtown. They've paved the way for a new children's museum and begun negotiations on a hotel and conference site for that central Illinois town, which lies in the shadow of Illinois State University.

Now they're hoping to make it easier for people to get there. The check from the feds should help.

In August, they received the latest installment in federal money to help build a $36 million Amtrak station. The new facility, to be located in the heart of downtown, would replace a small train station located across the tracks.

It also would serve taxis and buses.

This federal help comes as President George W. Bush's administration pushes to eliminate the federal funding that has kept the nation's passenger rail system afloat since 1971. U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has said the president might veto Amtrak rail subsidies of more than $1.2 billion unless Congress adopts reforms that would address an estimated $29 billion in losses since the trains began rolling more than three decades ago.

Observers say the irony of improving stations when Amtrak may someday stop rolling is a fitting example of the way the United States deals with passenger rail issues. "It doesn't make any sense to do it this way," says Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Coalition. "It doesn't make any sense the way we do transportation planning overall."

Nationally recognized Amtrak critic Joseph Vranich, himself a former spokesman for the company, doesn't question the need for improving stations. But, he says, local officials might be going overboard. "It looks as if this is pork run rampant. It boggles my mind that the taxpayers' money would be spent on what seems like a Taj Mahal," says Vranich, author of End of the Line: The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America's Passenger Trains, which was published last year.

Like Normal, other Illinois cities are investing resources in new stations. Champaign undertook a similar plan several years ago, which resulted in a $9 million downtown facility. A third of the funding came from the federal government.

Springfield this year received $5 million in planning dollars through the federal transportation bill for a new station project Mayor Tim Davlin says could someday cost $50 million.

In August, Mattoon, a key stop for students heading to and from Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, received $2.5 million from the federal government. That is half the estimated cost of restoring Mattoon's 87-year-old station into one that will serve trains and buses, as well as a museum highlighting the history of Coles County.

"Maybe this is one of those cases of station envy," says Vranich. "You know, I want my station to be bigger than their station. Shame on them. Shame on them all."

Whether or not the building boom is mere civic competition, supporters of the upgrades say the millions spent on new stations show that the Bush Administration is on the wrong track when it comes to targeting Amtrak for elimination.

"The president, I think, is a little out of touch in terms of how important Amtrak is, particularly to communities in areas like downstate Illinois and rural communities where it is the primary way of getting back and forth to some of the major urban centers," U.S. Sen. Barack Obama said during a stop in Springfield this summer to hail passage of the federal transportation bill.

The standoff between Congress and the president over Amtrak has its roots in good, old-fashioned politics that enable congressmen to shower their districts with federal dollars. Cities, happy to tap the federal spigot for downtown improvement projects, have figured out a lucrative loophole in the federal budgeting process.

If the towns only wanted money to rebuild their stations, that cash would likely come out of the Amtrak budget, where it would face tougher scrutiny, given the administration's beliefs about Amtrak. But, by making the stations stopping points for buses and other forms of transportation, towns are able to access dollars through the highway budget.

In Springfield, for example, Mayor Davlin says a new multimodal facility is needed to help with an influx of visitors to the city's new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

"This goes above and beyond Amtrak," Davlin says. "It's the buses, the taxis. In other communities, they've built day care centers so working people can come in and have a handy place to leave their young ones."

As Harnish puts it: "The money for these projects is coming out of a very different pot of cash."

But it's not just federal money that is being spent on Amtrak stations up and down the state's three main rail corridors. Since Bush put a target on Amtrak five years ago, the Illinois Department of Transportation has continued to spend money on station improvements.

In 2004, the state transportation agency spent $222,000 to upgrade message boards at nine stations. In 2002, the state chipped in $50,000 to build a new station in Centralia and $68,000 to help fund a new roof at the Mattoon station. In 2001, the department spent $197,000 in Princeton, $50,000 in Macomb and $14,000 in Mendota for station and platform improvements. And, in fiscal year 2000, the state chipped in $100,000 to rebuild the station at Effingham, $100,000 to reconstruct the platform in Galesburg and $120,000 for platform work in Kankakee.

The state's $1 million outlay for station improvements doesn't count the existing cost of running Amtrak trains through the state. Nor does it account for more than $10 million aimed at bringing high-speed trains to the Chicago-St. Louis corridor and a yearly grant of $12 million in state money that pays for extra trains between Chicago and Springfield.

U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, an Urbana Republican who brought home money for stations in Normal and Mattoon this year, says the station upgrades are a good investment because Congress won't let Amtrak go belly up.

"They are not going to stop running," Johnson declares. "We're going to keep them on the tracks."

Normal Mayor Chris Koos says town officials were initially worried about spending money on the city's new transportation center because of Bush's stance on Amtrak.

"It's something we thought about.

But we felt pretty comfortable that we wouldn't be impacted by any of that," Koos says. "Even in a worst case scenario, if Amtrak went away, this corridor would probably privatize because it's a profitable corridor. Even if there was a smaller level of service,

I think we'd still be fine."

In Springfield, Mayor Davlin says he sees nothing wrong with the millions of dollars being spent.

"Is Amtrak going to go away forever? I don't think so," says Davlin. "I think rail service is here to stay. Our very own Abraham Lincoln, after all, signed into law the [Pacific] Railroad Act."

Vranich, who was president of the High Speed Rail Association until breaking from Amtrak, says improving stations is not necessarily a bad investment.

"Generally, it's a good idea because Illinois has the routes that offer some potential for the future." Despite his criticism of Amtrak and the size of subsidies related to it, he says, "I have no problem seeing some tax dollars going into something like Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, Quincy, Springfield. These make sense. That's where the market is."

Vranich, who lives in Irvine, Calif., says the future of the nation's passenger rail network lies with shorter routes.

The system could be reconfigured to eliminate the long-haul, multistate trains operated by Amtrak that lose money in favor of competitively bid shorter-run trains. "I don't want to get rid of all the trains. I want to get rid of the useless trains.''

In late August, the current head of Amtrak made a whistle-stop tour of Illinois in hopes of lobbying the public to get behind Amtrak as it heads into the final stages of the appropriation process in Congress.

With Bush continuing to insist on cutting off funding, David Gunn, Amtrak president and chief executive officer, says he believes Congress will come to the rescue once again.

"The reason why we are going to survive is because of the local communities. It's not because of some policy gurus in Washington. It's going to be because of the people close to the problems. Those people know they want those trains to run, and they want more service. It's the grass roots that is going to keep this thing going."

Obama says the tug-of-war between Bush and Congress over funding for passenger rail service isn't very complicated. "I think that the reason you see investment in these things is because representatives and senators are running the show and not the president."

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin also predicted a victory for Amtrak. "Congress has overcome that [Bush] administration policy in the past, and I think we will again this year."

Even if Bush somehow succeeds in eliminating Amtrak, passenger rail supporters say the stations will be a good investment.

"They can still be community centers. They can be viable, strong things in the community, even if they are not used as a train station," says David Johnson, assistant director of the National

Association of Railroad Passengers. "The buildings, even if for some reason we'd lose rail service, the buildings would still have a purpose."

Kurt Erickson is the Springfield bureau chief for The Pantagraph of Bloomington.

Illinois Issues, October 2005

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