Credit Gov. Terry Branstad for drawing the line that stopped Amtrak expansion at the Iowa border.
Branstad never supported the Quad-City to Iowa City extension, saying the capital and operating costs were too stiff for Iowa taxpayers to handle.
Flash back three years ago, when federal transportation authorities awarded Iowa and Illinois a $230 million grant to study Chicago through Iowa rail service. Shortly after, Iowa DOT officials abandoned the Q-C to Iowa City portion, choosing instead to spend the federal money studying another interstate route.
In January, a DOT report acknowledged the delay, but still said the Iowa vision included establishment of a intrastate network, beginning with the Q-C to Iowa City extension: “The link between Chicago and Iowa City via the Quad-Cities is the first link in an incremental approach to implementation… .”
The Iowa extension was priced at $108.6 million, according to a previous estimate. Federal authorities would have covered $88 million, leaving the state’s share at about $20 million.
Last week, Iowa DOT rail service chief Tammy Nicholson said rising construction costs have pushed passenger rail off the DOT priority list. This latest analysis pushes the overall cost up. Iowa’s share would now be $72 million.
Iowa’s deferred planning resulted in dismissed funding. The federal DOT moved $34 million in Iowa transportation grant funding to Illinois, where work is well underway.
Branstad consistently has balked at high capital and operating costs for rail. But he’s lavished much bigger tax cuts on other businesses. Under Branstad’s authority, Iowa awarded $50 million in tax credits to Orascom, then piled on another $57 million in tax credits to CF Industries, which demanded the same deal for its new fertilizer plant.
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Of course, this is a discount against the firms’ future taxes, not money out of the state treasury. But it shows how far Branstad will go to support some new businesses, while stiffing others. His cold shoulder for Amtrak reflects a sentiment not shared in our Quad-Cities. Our business and government leaders understand that the direct Amtrak line from Chicago to Moline adds a more affordable transportation option. We understand that extending the line 60 or so miles to Iowa City would benefit thousands of Iowans and Chicagoans with connections to the university.
Unlike the governor, we in the Quad-Cities acknowledge that all transportation is subsidized. Every airport, every highway, every waterway operates with direct state and federal government assistance. No method of transportation pays for itself.
Leaders in other states, including Illinois, understand the importance of diversifying public transportation options. Iowa has a single line across its southern tier that hits Burlington, Mount Pleasant, Ottumwa and Osceola before reaching Omaha. None of Iowa’s biggest cities – Des Moines, Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids or the Quad-Cities has passenger rail.
Illinois has three routes with daily Amtrak service to Bloomington, Champaign, Springfield, Carbondale, St. Louis and 23 other cities. And thanks to Illinois’ better rail planning, the state of Illinois also has $34 million in federal transportation funds Iowa turned down.