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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Illinois governor derails Genoa's dreams for Amtrak

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An unexpected about-face on the route to be used for new Chicago-Dubuque Amtrak train service leaves Genoa- and South Elgin-area leaders feeling bewildered, the Elgin Courier-News reports. But the decision makes it more likely that a new Metra commuter service could be set up in coming years from Elgin through Gilberts and Huntley to Belvidere and Rockford.

Government and chamber of commerce leaders from Genoa, DeKalb, Sycamore and DeKalb County had engaged in a passionate lobbying battle last fall against their counterparts in Belvidere, Rockford, Boone County and Winnebago County. The stakes involved which route the proposed Amtrak service should take between Chicago and Rockford.

The Genoa-DeKalb group wanted the once-daily-in-each-direction train to follow a Canadian National line, with stops in South Elgin and Genoa. The Belvidere-Rockford leaders favored using Metra's Milwaukee West line and a Union Pacific line, with stops in Bensenville and Belvidere. A train on the latter route would pass through Elgin but, according to preliminary plans, would not stop in Elgin.

The Illinois Department of Transportation at first applied for a federal stimulus grant to fund the track changes and any station construction needed. When the deadline to apply for that grant came last October and the two sides were still arguing, IDOT Bureau of Railroads chief George Weber decided to specify on the grant application that the train would follow the South Elgin-Genoa route. That's because a 2007 study that Amtrak conducted of possible routes had concluded that the South Elgin-Genoa route would be cheaper and attract more riders.

Even after federal officials turned down the grant request this past winter, Genoa and South Elgin officials remained confident that the state had decided in their favor. So they were shocked March 29 when Gov. Pat Quinn, making a campaign stop in Rockford, told a crowd there that "I believe in rail, and we're going to have passenger rail from Chicago through Belvidere, through Rockford and on to Dubuque," according to a Rockford newspaper account.

"The route was picked, I believe, last week by the Illinois Department of Transportation," Quinn reportedly told a Rockford reporter. He reportedly said the Union Pacific would be brought up to Amtrak's requirements with $60 million carved out of the state's capital funds budget.

IDOT's Weber could not be reached for comment. But IDOT spokeswoman Marisa Kollias confirmed that the Amtrak route will go through Elgin and Belvidere, not South Elgin and Genoa. However, while Quinn reportedly had said it was IDOT officials who had decided on the change, Kollias said that "the governor made the decision, and we support the governor's decision."

Genoa Village Administrator Joe Misurelli said that his city was never officially notified about the new route decision. "We call the governor's office, and they say to call IDOT. We call IDOT, and they say to call the governor's office."

"We'll keep working on this," Misurelli said. "The Canadian National route would have at least 600,000 more people living within 15 miles of its stations. Amtrak's own study says it would be the cheapest and fastest to put into operation and would be the cheapest to operate.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said that because the state will be paying the bills for track upgrades and a yearly operating subsidy, Amtrak will run the train on whatever route the state wants. He said it also would be up to state officials to figure out how soon the construction can begin.

Many of the track, signal and station improvements needed for Amtrak to use the Metra Union Pacific West route also would be needed if Metra would start a long-discussed commuter service from Elgin through Gilberts and Huntley to Belvidere and Rockford. Both Dubuque-bound Amtrak trains and any Rockford-bound commuter trains would follow the Metra-owned Milwaukee District West commuter line from Union Station to just beyond the Big Timber station in Elgin. Then they would cross onto the one-track Union Pacific line that parallels the Metra line there and would follow the Union Pacific line through Gilberts and Huntley to Belvidere and Rockford.

To do that, a new connecting track would have to be built in Elgin between the Metra line and the Union Pacific line. The Union Pacific line also would need to add signals, sidings to enable oncoming trains to pass each other, new track in some areas and some new stations. But if all those items were installed to handle the Amtrak service now, they would already be in existence when and if Boone and Winnebago County join the Regional Transportation Authority and Metra decides to start Rockford commuter service.