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Some question worth of Iowa City-Chicago rail service

BY MITCHELL SCHMIDT | NOVEMBER 11, 2010 7:20 AM

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While officials from Iowa City to Washington, D.C., have lauded a proposed rail from Iowa City to Chicago as a way to boost a struggling economy, some argue the rail simply will not work.

"I think there are a number of demographic and economic hurdles to overcome before [the rail] would be viable," said Sam Staley, the director of urban and land-use policy at Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, Calif.

Staley was part of a 2006 study on the economic effects of numerous rail lines, including the Hiawatha line between Chicago and Milwaukee, which found that rails might not result in growth.

"There is really little objective evidence to show a clear connection between intercity rail stations and economic development," Staley said.

In fiscal 2008, 41 of Amtrak's 44 routes lost money, with total losses equaling $1.1 billion, according to Pew's Subsidyscope.org.

And the rail service to Chicago would take longer than driving, flying, or taking the bus. It's also more expensive than traveling by car or bus.

But several passenger-rail officials nationwide said they are pleased with their rail service.

Amtrak's Heartland Flyer transports roughly 82,000 passengers annually back and forth from Oklahoma City, Okla., and Forth Worth, Texas.

Since the first modern train rolled down the tracks in 1999, more than 730,000 people have made the trip, said Oklahoma Department of Transportation spokeswoman Brenda Perry.

"I think it's safe to say that it's very popular and continues to grow," she said.

This is something Iowa City officials said they hope to acquire.

"Passenger rail could ultimately create a new gateway into Iowa City," said Kelly McCann, the director of communications for the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce.

Others argue that the alternative to a passenger rail has been here for years — the bus routes.
According to a study by the American Bus Association, motor coaches provide 184 passenger miles per gallon — more than double the 86 miles per gallon of commercial rail services, the second most fuel-efficient on the list.

Eugene Hibbs, a former agency sales manager for Greyhound, said the train would be a "gross mismanagement and gross misspending of public tax dollars."

And with this year's election, leadership changes at the state level have led to different views on passenger rail services. Scott Walker, the next governor of Wisconsin, stated his opposition to high-speed rail in the state during his campaign.

But U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood made it clear in a letter sent to Walker on Tuesday that funds were for rails only.

Hibbs said returning the funds, a $230 million grant, would benefit the state of Iowa.

"Here's a quarter billion right here we can save," Hibbs said.

According to the Associated Press, Gov.-elect Terry Branstad said he'll examine the proposal, which Gov. Chet Culver heavily touted in office.

But McCann said she is confident that he will also see value in the rails.

"We have every reason to believe that once he studies the issue he will conclude that rail is a good investment for our state and offers value to our residents," she said.


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