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More funds add steam to St. Louis to Chicago rail link

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 9, 2010 - WASHINGTON - The St. Louis to Chicago high-speed rail project picked up some steam Thursday when the federal government announced an additional $42.3 million to help finance track and other improvements on the planned corridor.

That extra money -- from federal stimulus funds rejected by Ohio and Wisconsin -- comes on top of the $1.2 billion in federal funding for the project that was announced earlier this year in St. Louis.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Thursday that the Illinois transportation department "will be able to use this funding to break ground on projects that were included in the state's application for high speed rail along the Chicago to St. Louis corridor, but not funded earlier this year." Those include improvements along the corridor that he said "will decrease travel times even further and create jobs that our state badly needs."

Durbin learned of the extra funding for the 284-mile corridor from Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a former U.S. House member from Illinois who re-allocated the funds rejected by the incoming governors of Ohio and Wisconsin. LaHood was expected to be in St. Louis and East St. Louis on Friday to tour the Arch and to discuss the transportation element of the plan to improve the Arch grounds.

"High-speed rail will modernize America's valuable transportation network, while reinvigorating the manufacturing sector and putting people back to work in good-paying jobs," LaHood said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, a supporter of both the Chicago and Kansas City rail projects out of St. Louis, said in an interview Thursday that the new funding would help advance the project. "That's a high priority not only for the commerce it generates but also for the jobs it will create to modify tracks and service the rail corridor. And it's great for the people who will be able to travel in a high-speed fashion between St. Louis and Chicago. That's already a well established corridor we can enhance through high-speed rail."

In January, a White House official traveled to St. Louis to announce the stimulus money for the St. Louis to Chicago high-speed rail corridor, as well as another $31 million to upgrade passenger rail service between St. Louis and Kansas City. The long-term plan is for trains to reach speeds of up tp 110 mph from Chicago to St. Louis to Kansas City, with as many as eight daily round trips between St. Louis and Chicago, with travel time of about four hours -- an hour and a half faster than current rail service.

But that goal will likely take years to realize, officials say. The first big step came last summer, when the Illinois Department of Transportation published the final environmental impact statement for the development of the St. Louis-Chicago corridor -- evaluating alternatives to the plan and also documenting potential impacts of the faster rail lines.

In September, construction began on about $98 million in upgrades to a 90-mile stretch of track from Alton northward to Lincoln, Ill. That leg, which is expected to be completed soon, eventually will tie into rail lines leading into Chicago. However, Illinois transportation officials say there are some glitches in arranging for high-speed rail through the Springfield, Ill., area, where residents have complained about the increasing number of trains passing through the downtown area. A Springfield study is underway.

Another major rail project in the works, with $230 million in federal funding, is a new Amtrak route between Chicago and Iowa City through the Quad Cities. That project, scheduled for completion in 2015, may be supplemented later by a plan to extend Amtrak service from Chicago to Rockford and the Quad Cities.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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