COUNCIL BLUFFS — The day after a snowstorm brought much travel to a halt, a rail official from Maine made a timely case for passenger rail: Trains cut through snow much better than a car.
“Sometimes it's hard to drive. And when the airports close and the roads really aren't very good, there's not much that is going to stop those P42 locomotives,” said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.
About 50 people attended a meeting Thursday afternoon in Council Bluffs promoting passenger rail between the Omaha area and Chicago.
The meeting, held at Bayliss Park Hall downtown, featured two speakers, Quinn and Geoff Fruin, who is assistant to the city manager for Iowa City. Fruin is also a former city official in Normal, Ill., which used the city's Amtrak rail stop as a centerpiece of its downtown redevelopment.
“It brought back our urban core,” said Fruin of the transformation of Normal's downtown. “Prior to that it was a very suburban-driven economy.”
Transportation officials in Iowa and Illinois are planning a possible passenger rail line between Council Bluffs and Chicago. The line would be faster, more direct and have more daily trips than Amtrak's California Zephyr, which travels between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay area.
Whether the line ever gets built in Iowa may hinge on whether the state's governor and Legislature can be convinced that the project is economically feasible. A cost estimate will not be available until later this year.
The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority operates the Downeaster, which runs five round trips per day between Boston and Portland, Maine. (Two of those trips go further into Maine, to Brunswick.)
Since the route opened in 2001, 4.2 million passengers have taken the Downeaster, Quinn said. And more take it every year. It has also triggered needed redevelopment in the old New England mill towns it serves.
In Normal, the city's efforts, beginning early last decade, brought in new hotels, restaurants and stores. Fruin cited a local newspaper report that said property values in downtown Normal had nearly doubled since 2005.
Quinn said the Downeaster does not directly pay for itself — $7 million of its $15 million budget is not covered by ticket sales, with the gap filled by state and federal money.
But a study commissioned by the rail authority found that by 2030, the money saved by people using the train instead of driving would have put $244 million back into the economy. It would also generate nearly $76 million in state and local tax revenue.
“The Downeaster has really demonstrated itself to be not just a transportation alternative but an economic engine for the region,” she said.
Council Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan said city planners are looking at possible sites for a train station in the city — possible locations include near Mall of the Bluffs or downtown. If the line is extended to Council Bluffs, it would be years in the future.
Officials are also looking at having the rail line cross the Missouri River into Omaha.
“I'm intrigued by the opportunity for a lot of different reasons,” Hanafan said.
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