COUNCIL BLUFFS — It's an intriguing proposal — a faster train that zips from Council Bluffs to Chicago in less than 7½ hours.
The train — whose route could extend west to Omaha — would make numerous stops across Iowa, including in Atlantic, Des Moines, Grinnell and Iowa City.
But the idea has been slow to pick up steam.
Whether the line ever gets built may hinge on whether Iowa's governor and State Legislature can be convinced that the project is economically feasible.
“Basically, what it boils down to is we need the state money in order to move forward,” said Amanda Martin, policy coordinator of the Iowa Office of Rail Transportation.
Though most of the money would most likely come from federal sources, the State of Iowa also would be asked to kick in, both for initial expenses and for an ongoing subsidy. That's something the Republican-controlled Iowa House and Gov. Terry Branstad have been reluctant to commit to do.
Still, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said he thought many state lawmakers would be open to the possibility of the rail route. “We'd certainly be open to it in the Senate,” he said.
In the 2011 session, the Legislature declined to provide the necessary state match for the Quad Cities to Iowa City leg of the route, though it could take up the issue again later. The state would have to come up with up to $20 million for that leg alone, along with a $3 million annual subsidy.
Illinois is proceeding with its part of the project and the Chicago-to-Moline, Ill., portion should open by the end of 2015.
A new report from the Iowa Department of Transportation and other agencies predicts that more than 900,000 passengers per year may use the line if speeds can reach 110 mph at times.
The study, which was discussed at a hearing last week in Council Bluffs, found that by 2030, Interstate 80 traffic could grow by more than 65 percent. If no improvements were made, three-fourths of I-80 in Iowa could be at or beyond capacity “resulting in stop-and-go traffic conditions.”
When the rail line would be operational and how much it would cost taxpayers has not yet been determined. Estimates will be available once a full study of the proposed line is completed by HDR Inc. of Omaha next summer.
It won't be until then that Branstad decides whether to support the project, said his spokesman, Tim Albrecht.
“The governor's overriding concern is he does not want Iowa taxpayers to be on the hook for an ongoing subsidy that would bust our budget,” Albrecht said. “Before we move forward, we would have to have that assurance.”
The governor would take into account any economic benefits the state would derive from a rail line, Albrecht said.
Like Branstad, Iowa Rep. Jack Drake, R-Griswold, whose district includes the proposed Atlantic station, also wants more information before deciding whether to support the line.
“I'd like to make sure down the road that it would eventually pay its way,” he said. “If (a subsidy) is going to be umpteen million dollars, it's going to be really difficult to do.”
The line would run on the Iowa Interstate Railroad line, which roughly parallels Interstate 80.
Officials are looking at several options for stations in Omaha and Council Bluffs. In Omaha, the preferred stop would be the current Amtrak station at 10th and Pacific Streets, southeast of downtown. Other possibilities are new stations near the TD Ameritrade Park or the riverfront.
Derek Miller, a transportation planner for the City of Omaha, cautioned that another passenger rail coming into the city was probably a long way in the future. The railroad bridge across the Missouri River near downtown, for example, is already near capacity.
“It would take a monumental feat just to get across the river,” he said.
The Council Bluffs station is expected to be near downtown, but the Mall of the Bluffs or near Iowa Western Community College are other possibilities.
It is not yet known how much a trip between Council Bluffs and Chicago would cost, but a round-trip ticket between Des Moines and Chicago is expected to cost about $90.
The proposed route is designed to be faster than Amtrak's California Zephyr, which travels between Chicago to the San Francisco Bay area. The Chicago-to-Omaha leg of that train takes more than nine hours.
Zephyr speeds are limited to 79 mph, and its Omaha-to-Chicago trip is scheduled once a day.
With the proposed line, officials are considering five round-trips per day between the Omaha metro area and Chicago, and seven between Des Moines and Chicago.
“It's just a totally different kind of service,” Martin said.
Another option to get to Chicago is to ride the Megabus, which offers low-cost bus rides to the Windy City and elsewhere. Passengers boarding the blue-and-yellow double-decker bus at Omaha's Crossroads Mall one recent morning said they would be interested in taking the train.
“It would be a faster way of getting from one location to another,” said Vickie Hughes, 50 of Omaha, who was riding the bus to Chicago.
Bryan Gottshall, 25, of New Orleans, who was traveling to Des Moines, said he also would prefer the train. But his bus ticket to Des Moines cost him $5, in all likelihood a fraction of what it would cost to go by train.
“In that case, I'd probably take the bus,” he said.
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