The prospect of a new passenger rail line that would stretch from Chicago to the Quad Cities and on to Iowa City is still up in the air. The federal government has set aside tens of millions of dollars for that track in Iowa and while Republicans have expressed skepticism, the final budget plan that passed the legislature this week still includes a small portion of the state’s matching funds for the project.
Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, says there’s a lot of money at stake. “Passenger rail advocates need to spend the next year helping convince legislators, the governor, and the public that this is an important asset for the state,” McCoy says, “and that we should do all we can to draw down at least $230 million in federal funds that are available.”
But Representative Royd Chambers, a Republican from Sheldon, says Republicans doubt the estimate of how much state support would be needed in the future to operate that line. “These government-funded passenger rail projects have very questionable records as far as making a profit,” Chambers says.
“And that’s what we’re really concerned about is setting up a new system where Iowa taxpayers are on the hook for maintaining a system forever and we’re just not convinced that it’s a worthwhile project.” McCoy points to an analysis from the Iowa D.O.T.
“When ridership is there and the train is actually up and running, it will actually operate in the black,” McCoy says. However, Chambers doubts passengers will choose to use the line. “It really isn’t going to be as fast as the bus service going between those destination points,” Chambers says. If the line were truly a “high-speed” rail option, Chambers believes it would have more riders.
State officials have ’til next year to come up with another $15-million so the project can proceed. Wisconsin’s Republican governor has turned down the offer of federal money for expanded passenger rail service there. Legislators set aside about $5-million for passenger rail in last year’s state spending plan.
Republicans initially wanted to spend the money elsewhere, but the state budget that cleared the General Assembly this week left that money in reserve for the project.