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Legislature approves rail funding

BY CHASTITY DILLARD | JUNE 30, 2011 7:20 AM

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Funding for a passenger rail appears to have survived budget negotiations on Wednesday, solidifying the future of the proposed Iowa City-Chicago passenger rail service.

The measure keeps the $6.5 million that has been set aside to fund the Iowa City-Quad Cities-Chicago passenger rail service. But with the final state budget still undecided at the time of the vote, lawmakers abstained from allocating more money for the rail during fiscal 2012.

The total cost of the project is an estimated $310 million. In addition to the federal funds, which will cover 80 percent, Iowa is expected to provide $20 million, and Illinois will throw in $45 million.

“I support the rail,” said Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville. “The bill keeps the door open for the rail project, but it does not allocate the $6 million in state money that goes with the $80 million match from the federal government.”

Legislators said the compromise was made in efforts to keep the rail project alive, so the language including talk of the rail was left in and the money kicked out.

“I don’t think [the constituents] understand that this is a one-time situation,” Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said, noting that it’s not often the government just gives out federal funding.

Dvorsky said he “would call a coalition to provide some education to the government offices and to the general public” and fight the lack of support in the Iowa house.

Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who has constituents with strong opinions on both sides of the spectrum, voted for the bill.

“It’s an issue that has some strong opponents and strong supporters,” he said. “I think it’s more appropriate for the governor to make a statewide decision.”

He said it was easier to support the bill because funding was removed. Gov. Terry Branstand will have the choice of allocating funding to the rail service, Kaufmann said, once the bill makes it to his desk.

“It is the governor’s discretion to decide whether or not to spend the money on the train,” Kaufmann said. “It makes me nervous that at some point that the federal funding that helps the state run the rail project won’t be there.”

Branstad’s concerns are just that and have been for several months.

Tim Albrecht, Branstad’s communication director, said the governor has always been concerned about any ongoing subsidies that Iowa would have to provide.

“Gov. Branstad doesn’t want to put Iowa tax payers in a position where they would have to subsidize the service because it is unable to stand on its own,” Albrecht said.

Officials at the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, who have devoted time to bringing the service of the rail line connecting Iowa and Illinois to the region since the beginning, are more optimistic.

“We think this is a valuable project for the state,” said Kelly McCann, the vice president of communications for the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce. “Not only does it create jobs, it connects Iowans to Iowans.”

The value to the Chamber officials is the passenger rail link toward boosting the economy.

“It could connect us to a major hub — Chicago — which is important to attract employers and talent to our area,” McCann said.


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