Chicago to Omaha rail will likely make a stop in Iowa City

BY KRISTEN EAST | MAY 01, 2012 6:30 AM

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Iowa City will likely be a stop on a proposed rail route connecting Chicago and Omaha a few years down the road.

The Iowa and Illinois transportation departments and the Federal Railroad Administration are in phase two of a five-step study determining the best railroad route from Chicago to Omaha. Those involved in the study narrowed down the previously established passenger-train routes Monday to one, which included a stop in Iowa City.

Amanda Martin, policy coordinator for the Iowa Department of Transportation's rail office, said the preferred route — which would use the existing Iowa Interstate Railroad — is a combination of two out of five alternative routes being considered.

"This is just preliminary findings, but we did get down to what we're calling 4A," she said.

Martin said the $2 million funding of the study is split between the Federal Railroad Administration and the Iowa Department of Transportation.

The Iowa and Illinois transportation departments and the Federal Railroad Administration are hosting meetings throughout the week — the first in Chicago today — to discuss the study and take public comments. Subsequent meetings will be held in Des Moines and Council Bluffs on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. Online meetings will be held as well starting today.

Local officials said they aren't directly involved in the meetings, but they hope for an Iowa City stop.

"We're all in support and would love to see the train come here," said Brad Neumann, an assistant transportation planner for the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County. "It's kind of a sit and wait-and-see thing right now."

Mayor Matt Hayek said the city has been on board with this project for quite some time.

"We believe that running passengers rails through the central portion of the states … it makes sense for Iowa," he said. "It's to ensure that Iowa remains competitive and relative to other states in the Midwest."

City officials said University of Iowa students would benefit greatly from this service.

"There are lots of students from the Chicago and Illinois area who can utilize that train," Neumann said.

Once the five steps are complete, transportation officials will present the findings before Iowa policymakers, who will decide if they want to approve funding for the rail project.

A railway similar to the proposed Chicago-to-Omaha line runs from St. Louis to Chicago, making a stop in Normal, Ill., where Illinois State University is located.

"We're one of the busiest downstate stops for Amtrak," said Joe Tulley, marketing manager of the Uptown Transportation Center in Normal, which will open this summer. "We've seen pretty significant growth in recent years. A lot of that growth is student-driven."

Tulley said Illinois State students rely on rail transportation, and having the proposed railway run through Iowa City would similarly benefit UI students.

"Anytime you can get easy access to a major metropolitan area, it's a big deal," he said. "[At universities], you obviously have a lot of student traffic that doesn't have other means of transportation."

Martin said the next step following this week's meetings would be for the involved parties to draft a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement. The entire planning study is expected to be completed in March or April of 2013, she said.

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