DES MOINES — Iowa rail advocates expressed concern Monday that the state may be walking away from a $100 million upgrade for freight lines that would boost shipping capacity and lessen the traffic demand on interstate highways.
Their worry is that the issue is being viewed solely from the subsidized passenger rail perspective of linking Chicago with Iowa City via the Quad-Cities.
“If Iowa wants to be a player in the world economy, we must have modern, efficient, safe railroads,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, co-leader of the House-Senate budget subcommittee on transportation, infrastructure and capitals. “While we’ve been calling this a passenger rail project, it is probably more accurate to call it a freight rail project. It is a freight rail project because the vast majority of trains that will travel on these improved rails — traveling at faster speeds with improved safety — will be freight trains.”
Dan Sabin, president of the Iowa Northern Railroad Co., said Iowa has an opportunity to upgrade a freight rail system that could be world class, but that chance could go away if the state fails to take advantage of federal money being offered as part of the proposal to connect Chicago to the Quad-Cities with passenger rail service and then extend that to Iowa City.
State transportation officials hope to have results available soon from a feasibility study for connecting passenger rail service already in the works from Chicago to the Quad-Cities. Up to $20.6 million in state investments will be needed to secure an $87 million grant to Iowa from the Federal Railroad Administration.
House Republicans have opposed the funding, while Gov. Terry Branstad said he does not want to saddle Iowa taxpayers with ongoing subsidies to operate the passenger trains in Iowa.
McCoy said Iowa officials are negotiating with Illinois officials to see if they will shoulder a bigger share of the operating cost to acknowledge the benefit they will receive from nonresident University of Iowa students using the expanded Amtrak passenger service for trips to Chicago.
However, Jeff Kurtz of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen said what is lost in the discussion is the benefit Iowa will reap from increased investment in its freight lines.
“It is undeniable that the strong majority of trains that will benefit from these railroad enhancements will be freight trains,” Kurtz said.