The path to easier passenger rail travel between Omaha and Chicago goes through Des Moines and Iowa City.
The authors of a preliminary federal and state study prefer that route for a possible Chicago-to-Omaha line. The route was one of several that Iowa, Illinois and federal transportation officials examined. A final decision is expected in early 2013.
The route's environmental impacts continue to be studied, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation.
If the passenger line is ultimately built, officials anticipate a rail ride between Omaha and Chicago would take no more than nine hours. The plan is for five passenger trains per day to run in both directions between the two cities.
“That is the ultimate build-out of the service,” said Amanda Martin, policy coordinator of the Iowa Office of Rail Transportation, during an online meeting Monday. “It might start at a smaller frequency.”
Costs for the project have not yet been determined. The study costs about $2 million.
Exactly where the line would end in the Omaha area is not yet known. It might not stretch across the Missouri River.
Other potential routes studied would have gone through such cities such as Cedar Rapids, Ames, Waterloo and Fort Dodge.
The preferred course is actually a combination of two of the five routes initially considered by transportation planners. The major difference is in Illinois.
Officials sought to find the path that would serve the most people and have low operating and maintenance costs and minimal environmental impacts.
The 460-mile-long route best met the requirements, officials said.
The route decision could have some bearing on the development of a planned “Green Line” rail connection between Chicago and Iowa City. The portion of the Green Line linking Chicago and Moline, Ill., is scheduled to open over the next few years. Steps to possibly expand it to Iowa City are on hold until the Chicago-to-Omaha study ends.
Next, officials will perform a detailed evaluation of freight traffic along the preferred route, estimate its cost and determine some station locations.
The proposed Omaha connection is designed to be faster than Amtrak's current California Zephyr, which travels from Chicago through Omaha to the San Francisco Bay Area, crossing southern Iowa.
Zephyr speeds are limited to 79 mph. Planners are looking for ways to accommodate speeds on the proposed line of up to 110 mph.
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