U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood talked about expanding intercity passenger rail nationwide in a speech to an international transportation conference in Des Moines and in remarks later with reporters. He was privately lobbied on the passenger train issue beforehand by Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie and Nancy Richardson, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation.
The Iowa DOT, in cooperation with Illinois, will seek $256 million in federal money this fall in hopes of establishing passenger train service between Chicago and Iowa City, via the Quad Cities. Eventually, the route would extend to Des Moines and Omaha on the tracks of the Iowa Interstate Railroad.
LaHood, a former Illinois Republican congressman, compared the status of the nation's passenger rail system to the 1950s, when the interstate highway system was being launched.
"Not all the lines were on the map, and we didn't know where all the money was coming from. But I know this: There are foreign companies in America today trying to find places to locate so they can hire American workers and build train (equipment) and to build a rail infrastructure," LaHood said.
He added, "High-speed intercity rail is coming to America. We are probably two decades away from the vast majority of the country being connected, though. It is going to take time."
LaHood was in Des Moines for the North America's SuperCorridor Coalition's annual conference. About 200 people from Mexico, Canada and the United States are at the three-day event.
Iowa is served by two Amtrak passenger trains, both running daily through southern Iowa between Chicago and the West Coast.
LaHood made no promises that Iowa's and Illinois' request for federal money for a Chicago-to-Iowa City rail service will be approved. But he said he was impressed that the Iowa Legislature approved state funds that can be used to match federal money to expand passenger rail service.
The Iowa Legislature appropriated $2 million for passenger rail for the 2011 fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2010, and $6.5 million for the 2012 fiscal year.
Lawmakers also have approved "intent language" to provide up to $20 million over four years to fully finance Iowa's commitment for matching federal passenger rail money.
LaHood shook his head negatively when asked whether Iowa's and Illinois' request for federal money would be a harder sell than states that have more populous corridors. "Look, if they build it, they will come. ... There are examples all over America where our investments are being well spent and well used, because if you offer people these kinds of transportation, they will use it."
In January, federal officials rejected an earlier request by Iowa and Illinois for the $256 million for Chicago-to-Iowa City train service.
Iowa received $18 million in federal money in January, including $1 million to study passenger service between Chicago and Omaha, and $17 million for track improvements in the Ottumwa area.