Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Snubbed by feds, Illinois cities try to track down new funding

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Federal stimulus grants could have redrawn the map of freight rail lines throughout the Rockford, Ill., area and truck routes around Rochelle, Ill., GateHouse News Service reports. Instead, after the $108-million requests were rejected last week, it's back to the drawing board.



Rockford and Rochelle leaders will now look for other federal money, state aid, local resources and private investment to get the work done. 

For Rockford, it'll be a tougher battle because it was asking for more funds.

 Officials wanted $71 million to redo the downtown rail yards, upgrade tracks, move train traffic to other parts of town and build a truck-to-train cargo facility near Chicago Rockford International Airport.



And while there's the promise of another $600 million in federal funds for those types of projects this year, local leaders say a key will now be getting the railroads to help out, too.



"I think they all are interested in making investments in Rockford if they can show a return on their investment," said Steve Ernst, executive director of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning. 

"They want to see some public dollars. ... Everyone is of the mindset that if we can partner on these projects, we're all going to be more successful."



There's been some of that partnering already, with the city working out a deal to get five acres of the rail yards from Canadian National Railway as long as the city cleans up the property.



Several major railroads have operations in Rockford, and as the economy picks up, they'll be more likely to invest here, said Lee Hutchins, a Chicago consultant who does rail consulting for the Rockford area. 

For example, Canadian Pacific Railway recently bought most of a track from Chicago to Kansas City, including the portion that runs through Davis Junction. The railroad often uses the beat-up track from Davis Junction past the airport to downtown, and may want to help efforts to upgrade infrastructure there, Hutchins said.



"We have to be able to stress Rockford's logistical value to them and see how to make that work," he said. "One of the key aspects of Rockford is the fact that we are in proximity to the Chicago area, but not caught in all the congestion."



Hutchins said the truck-to-train cargo facility could be the key, because it would help the railroads get more customers in the Rockford area. That in turn could generate funds for the other projects.



Rochelle wanted $37 million to beef up a truck route around Union Pacific's Global III intermodal facility. The bigger roads could handle trucks carrying massive intermodal containers, and in turn attract businesses that fill them.

 But the city is already on to its Plan B, working with a mix of government and private partners to raise funds for the key project - the $11.3 million Jack Dame Road overpass.



"No one agency can fund all these things by themselves," Anderson said.



That project will open up hundreds of acres of industrial space, said Jason Anderson, Rochelle's economic development director .

Rochelle has a good track record of getting state and federal funds whenever it can show that such money will create jobs, he added. In this case, the city has several companies looking to locate in that area, and the overpass project could be the final push they need.

 And once the development starts, Anderson said, the other road projects could find their funding.


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