Friday, August 28, 2009

Lincoln's hometown fighting high-speed rail set to cut city in half

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The State of Illinois is in a rush to swallow up Federal Stimulus money earmarked for the development of high-speed rail services, the Illinois Statehouse Examiner reports. However, in the rush to meet the arbitrary deadlines imposed by the stimulus package, state officials are giving little consideration to the economic impact of communities along the high-speed rail system.

 

Illinois government has long envisioned a high-speed rail system connecting Chicago and St. Louis and now that vision may be realized due to the availability of stimulus money. Unfortunately, as the rail system takes a step closer to reality, communities along the system are recognizing that the negative economic impact of the high-speed rail system may be greater than any potential economic benefit.

Take for instance, President Lincoln's hometown, Springfield, Illinois, where city officials, business and community leaders are coming together for the first time in years to lobby the Illinois Commerce Commission to abandon their current high-speed rail plans and relocate the system to a more favorable route. The current plans for high-speed rail are set to run along a corridor that will essentially cut Springfield and its downtown in half, causing major disruptions to traffic flow and long-term development plans centered around the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

The current $2.3-billion agreement reached between Union Pacific and the State of Illinois calls for an upgrade to accommodate high-speed rail access along the Third Street corridor in the capitol city. Included in the plans would be the elimination of multiple railroad crossings and the installation of railway overpasses with lead-ins extending nearly a quarter of a mile on each side. The route would position the high-speed rail within a block of the Capitol complex, dividing the downtown in half and dividing access to the cities medical district. In addition, the proposed route would run through the heart of densely populated neighborhoods and increase traffic upon the tracks to upward of 40 trains per day.

The City of Springfield has invested millions of dollars toward developing a revitalized downtown centered around the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and millions more in developing a new medical district centered upon the cities three hospital networks, two of which rank among the nations top 100. The division of the downtown would not only create heavy congestion but would also economic hardship as commuters further turn away from the downtown area in an effort to avoid the congestion. The cities hospital systems which would now be separated by an overpass and have access routes limited, have already expressed deepened concern about the close proximity of the highly magnetized rail lines to the sensitive instrumentation used in the facilities.

In a rare occurrence in the community, City Officials, County officials, the Chamber of Commerce, multiple homeowners' associations, Downtown Springfield, Inc. and multiple other groups have come together to voice opposition and hold rallies to bring awareness to the state's plans. Springfield and surrounding community leaders are not opposed to high-speed rail service, but have proposed the use of another rail corridor located on the outskirts of the downtown area running along a less populated and more industrialized route. The alternative Tenth-Street Corridor would provide less disruption to traffic patterns, already has a system of over and underpasses in place and would not have a negative impact upon a downtown area that the city and private businesses have spent millions of dollars revitalizing.

Illinois Department of Transportation officials have stated that the tenth street corridor is not a consideration because the Federal Stimulus deadlines have not allowed enough time to study any alternatives. Springfield officials who have turned for help from U.S. Senator Dick Durbin have been met with no response as to the Senator's support of the alternative corridor and the unfortunate response that there is not much that he can do about the decision. The Senator's lackluster response has many, including myself questioning how a Senator in Durbin's position as a party leader and holding a close relationship with the President can have so little influence.

Springfield is not the only community or organization opposed to the rushed decisions concerning high-speed rail services. Smaller communities throughout the nation will face similar problems with the rail system. Agricultural leaders in Illinois and surrounding areas have long opposed high-speed rail systems that will eliminate hundreds of crossing throughout Illinois and cause farmers living along the proposed systems to sometimes have to travel 20 or 30 miles in a single direction to access fields.

The installation of high-speed rail is intended to ease interstate congestion and enhance economic opportunities in the communities receiving service. However, a rush to implementation by the Federal Government and a rush to grab money by the states is creating an environment in which the impact on communities is no longer a consideration. As a result, cities such as the city where President Obama first promised change are now facing a negative economic and social impact from the very policies that promised hope and change. Springfield has become a shining example of the old adage 'haste makes waste' as it is likely to fall victim to a multi-billion dollar rail system designed with no consideration for the communities it will travel through.

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