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A passenger rail in Iowa City should serve the rest of Iowa, not just Illinois

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JUNE 18, 2009 7:21 AM

Iowa City sometimes resembles a Chicago suburb. This is especially true during the football and baseball seasons, when Illinois transplants festoon their apartments and lawns with Chicago-area sports team banners, lawn furniture, etc. The city does have a high number of visitors from Illinois, be they students or other individuals and families. That is why it makes sense for Amtrak to connect Iowa City and Chicago.

Amtrak shouldn’t stop there, however, because this connection leaves out a bigger group of people: native Iowans. The railway should connect Iowa City to other towns, such as Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Dubuque, as well.

The Iowa City Chamber of Commerce has been lobbying the Iowa government to provide matching funds for a proposed passenger line from Chicago to the Quad Cities to Iowa City.

Rebecca Needs from the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce said tourism should be a big incentive for this proposal. In 2007, visitors spent more than $294 million in Johnson County, bringing in more than $18 million in local and state taxes, Needs said. She also said Iowa City’s size, local entertainment, and nightlife make it an ideal destination for affordable entertainment.

A bigger reason to connect Iowa City to Chicago via passenger rail — especially for the UI community — will be the benefits that come with allowing students from the Chicago area and other parts of Illinois to travel by train. The convenient form of transportation could encourage more students from the area to attend the UI. It could also provide significant relief to Iowa City’s parking problems; many students, perhaps, would forgo their cars for the passenger rail.

This proposal encourages travel between Iowa City and Chicago. This benefits Illinois students and transplants, but it provides little benefit for the UI’s larger population, native Iowans. Approximately 45,000 people either worked for or attended the UI in the fall of 2008, according to the UI Fact Book. Slightly more than 30,500 of that number were either students or graduate/professional students. And, of that number, around 19,000 were from the state of Iowa.

Iowans make up the majority population at the UI, so a rail connection should be of benefit to them as well. Amtrak should expand beyond just an Iowa City to Chicago connection and reach out to Iowa’s biggest cities. The Iowa passenger rail system now bypasses the state’s largest city, Des Moines. The closest Amtrak stop is 35 miles away from Iowa’s capital, in Osceola.

A passenger service running through Des Moines and Iowa’s other larger cities could provide benefits to more than just the students; it could benefit Amtrak as well. Demand for rail transportation has increased as gas prices make driving cars less economical, but, unfortunately, Amtrak lacks the funds necessary to meet the demand. Connecting such towns as Des Moines to such cities as Omaha, Iowa City, and Chicago could attract more riders than current stations in Mount Pleasant and Osceola. The increased passenger numbers would bring in additional revenue and make the case for increased federal funding.

Needs said local officials are interested in eventually extending passenger service to Des Moines. The time to start planning for a more extensive rail system in Iowa is now. The Iowa City-to-Davenport proposal — if approved — will take between two to three years to complete before trains will begin rolling from Iowa City to Chicago. And connections to Des Moines, Dubuque, and Omaha would probably take longer and cost more. However, the benefits of having a passenger rail that connects Iowa City to the rest of Iowa’s hot spots will likely outweigh the time and monetary costs of such a project.


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