A Republican-led group is criticizing $300,000 in state spending on an Amtrak train depot for Dubuque, dismissing it as a "train to nowhere" since Amtrak doesn’t have a train running to Dubuque today. David Kochel, president of the "Iowa Progress Project," says it’s wasteful "pork barrel" spending.
"At a time when money’s tight in Iowa I don’t think they need to be spending $300,000 to build a train depot when they don’t even have Amtrak service to Dubuque," Kochel says. "I know they would like to get it in the future, but it doesn’t make any sense to be spending money that you don’t have for a project that you don’t need where a train doesn’t yet exist."
Kochel says it is especially bad decision-making when Cedar Rapids flood victims are waiting for help, and the legislature won’t reconvene in special session to address their concerns. "Budgets are about choices and we’ve had the kind of year where we should be focused on doing things for the people of Iowa who need it and not worrying about pork projects like this," Kochel says.
The Iowa Progress Project is urging "fellow conservatives" to call House Speaker Pat Murphy, a Democrat, to complain about this project. "With budget being as tight as it is and with the economy being where it is, this is not the time to be spending money on projects that aren’t and frankly at this moment aren’t even possible when there are more pressing concerns to be focused on by Iowans," Kochel says.
Speaker Murphy, the Democrat who’s from Dubuque — where this project would be built, defends his actions. "We’ve been working on the rail project for several years and we were able to get $300,000 in this year’s budget to help set up the rail service between Dubuque and Chicago," Murphy says. "I think it’s great economic development for the city of Dubuque as well as the state of Iowa and also increases tourism to the area."
Murphy says he’s worked "very hard" on the project and takes "full credit" for getting that money set aside for Dubuque. "A train to Chicago I don’t think is a train to nowhere," Murphy says. An Iowa Department of Transportation official seemed puzzled by the Republican group’s charges, pointing to Amtrak studies which indicate the line may soon extend to Dubuque.
Boosters of the project, like Sue Czeshinski of the Dubuque Convention and Visitors Bureau, are outraged. "We find it disappointing to think that Dubuque, one of the state’s largest tourist destinations, would be considered nowhere," Czeshinski says. Dubuque ranks sixth on the list of most popular tourist destinations in Iowa according to Czeshinski.
"It’s certainly somewhere to the over 60 different countries that are represented in our visitor’s center book every year…so we certainly are on the map in terms of travel and are growing our population as well," Czeshinski says. Dubuque City Manager Mike Van Milligan says the $300,000 would be used to start building a platform in the Port of Dubuque for passengers to get on and off the Amtrak train.
"This money from the state has identified for the Illinois Department of Transportation that Iowa is serious about this project," Van Milligan says, "and it’s also leveraged $250,000 from the federal government as seed money to work on this internodal transportation facility which will include much more than rail service."
The proposed Dubuque Amtrak link is connected to the bid the City of Chicago is submitting to host the 2016 Olympics. "Part of Chicago’s Olympic bid is they have to identify alternative forms of transportation to bring people in," Van Milligan says, "and actually Dubuque has already been selected for some preliminary events in the archery competition if they are to get the Olympics."
Next week Congressman Bruce Braley, a Democrat from Waterloo, and Congressman Jim Oberstar, a Democrat from Minnesota who’s head of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, plan to meet in Dubuque to discuss the project. At the same time, the Iowa Progress Project is running ads and sending email addressed to "fellow conservatives," hoping to derail the $300,000 state appropriation for the "train to nowhere."
AUDIO: Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson report Dubuque Amtrack money. :58 MP3