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High-speed rail to link St. Louis, Chicago

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 28, 2010 - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon couldn't have been more enthused today as he regaled St. Louis-area elected officials with predictions of what a high-speed rail line to Chicago could mean.

"You really can't overestimate how extraordinary this moment is,'' the governor said, at a news conference at the St. Louis Amtrak station to lay out the details of the $1.1 billion federal grant to help start work on the line.

A sports buff, Nixon cracked a smile as he declared, "It will make it super-easy for St. Louisans to get to Wrigley Field and watch the Cards beat the Cubs!"

Jokes aside, the governor and other officials involved in the effort -- notably U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, and state Department of Transportation chief Pete Rahn -- predicted a surge in job-creation and development that would be spawned by such a project.

The $1.1 billion is part of $8 billion awarded nationally today for light-rail projects around the country. The money is coming from the federal stimulus package, and reflects some of the infrastructure spending that President Barack Obama lauded in Wednesday's State of the Union address.

Although years away from completion, officials say the $4 billion Chicago-St. Louis project would make it possible for people to travel between the two cities in close to three hours -- considerably less than the roughly five hours it takes in a car -- and create tens of thousands of construction jobs.

But more important, it's part of a planned network of high-speed rail routes throughout the Midwest, with Chicago as the hub. Such rail lines would see minimum speeds of 110 miles an hour, and perhaps get up to 200 miles an hour.

Carnahan called it "one of those transformational projects,'' which he compared to the construction of the trans-continental railway in the 1800s and the interstate highway system in the 1950s and '60s.

Illinois officials, including Gov. Pat Quinn, are expected to take their celebratory turn on Friday at a news conference in Alton.

Missouri and Illinois officials also are pleased about additional federal money -- $31 million in Missouri and $134 million in Illinois -- for other rail projects.

In Missouri's case, the money would be coupled with $15 million in the state's existing federal transportation aid to improve the St. Louis-Kansas City rail line so that the Amtrak train -- which shares the track with freight trains -- can run faster and be more reliable.

The bulk of the $31 million will be used to construct a new rail bridge over the Osage River bridge, a key bottleneck often blamed for cross-state Amtrak delays. Now, passenger rail traffic between Missouri's two largest cities is often beset with delays that can make the trip far slower than the four hours it takes by car.

Even so, Amtrak passenger traffic across Missouri in 2009 increased more than 25 percent since 2005. In Illinois, the number of passenger boardings and departures are up a third during the same four-year period. (Nationally Amtrak set a ridership record in the last three months of 2009.)

Rahn said the eventual aim would be to improve the St. Louis-Kansas City stretch enough so that Amtrak trains could average speeds of close to 90 miles an hour. Now, it's less than 80 mph.

Edward Montgomery, executive director of the White House Council on Automotive Communities and Workers, and Karen Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, joined Missouri officials at today's event -- and emphasized that their glee on the new federal rail assistance was justified.

Rae noted that, nationally, states submitted $57 billion in proposed high-speed rail projects for the $8 billion in awards. The fact that a sizable chunk went to the Midwest -- with the St. Louis-Chicago line snagging the second-largest award -- is a sign of the national commitment to a regional network, she said.

Rae gave particular credit to Nixon, Carnahan and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. She said the governor was a key instigator in forging an eight-state coalition of Midwest governors.

Nixon and Carnahan, in turn, praised state Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City, who was cited for her 17-year effort to improve passenger rail traffic in Missouri.

Bray was among those invited to attend Thursday's news conference. Afterward, she called the federal award "the first phase of a dream come true."

Read the Beacon's earlier story:

St. Louis, Missouri and Illinois officials will be celebrating Thursday, after getting word that the two states have been awarded more than $1 billion to construct a high-speed rail line from St. Louis to Chicago.

Missouri was awarded an additional $31 million to upgrade passenger rail service from Kansas City to St. Louis. Illinois got $134 million for various rail improvements around the state.

The St. Louis-Chicago line is the first leg in a hoped-for system of high-speed lines throughout the Midwest, with Chicago as the hub. 

All told, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced late Wednesday that $8 billion was being split among various projects. Although Illinois officials had hoped for at least $2 billion, the $1.1 billion award was among the largest that DOT doled out.

The final cost of the St. Louis-Chicago high-speed line is expected to tally several times Wednesday's award.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon had signed a memorandum of understanding last June, and predicted at the time that the two states had a good shot at a sizable chunk of the available federal grants.

Nixon, U.S Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, and other area officials are expected to revel in their success by attending a 12:30 p.m. news conference Thursday at the Amtrak station in St. Louis.

In a statement Wednesday night, Carnahan said, "This is big news for the St. Louis metropolitan area. By connecting Missouri’s two largest economic engines to the rest of the Midwest with faster, more-efficient rail travel, we are making a down payment on the economic future of our region."

According to plans, the proposed high-speed train would have a minimum speed of 110 miles an hour, with a maximum of well more than 200 miles an hour. Such speed would cut the St. Louis-Chicago travel time to less than four hours. Also getting help from the Recovery Act money will be rail service between Kansas City and St. Louis, which is slated to get $31 million for upgrades.

“Because of the planning and foresight of our Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, enhancing the route from Chicago to St. Louis for high-speed trains would create jobs immediately, provide a cost-effective alternative for travelers and position the entire corridor for economic recovery, growth and transformation in the years to come," Nixon said in June.

Both states are suffering from budget problems, but both governors said that spending for high-speed rail made financial sense.

According a study of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, the proposed nine-state system of high-speed trains would create jobs and economic growth, as well as make it easier and quicker for people to travel within the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Missouri could see 5,600 permanent new jobs, and Illinois could gain 24,000, if the 3,000-mile system is constructed and fully operational. All the states could see financial benefits that, combined, could reach $5 billion, the study said.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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