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Excitement Grows for Chicago-to-St. Louis High-Speed Route

With the passage of the federal infrastructure bill, transportation leaders in Illinois are gaining hope that the high-speed rail project that would connect Chicago to St. Louis can gain momentum.

high speed rail
California High-Speed Rail Authority
A project to establish a high-speed rail corridor connecting Chicago to St. Louis could see fresh enthusiasm following the passage of the federal infrastructure package.

“It’s a huge opportunity for the city to move forward,” remarked Rick Harnish, executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance, during a panel discussion Nov. 4, just before Congress passed the $1.2 trillion bill.

Public transit rail networks are expected to see $66 billion in new investment in the next five years as a result of the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The funding will serve as a godsend to Amtrak, the nation’s chief passenger rail provider.

In August, lawmakers formed the Illinois High-Speed Railway Commission to set up a task force for facilitating the 284-mile project, which includes ridership and other studies. Trains would depart O’Hare International Airport and arrive in St. Louis two hours later. The route is currently served by Amtrak. The present route takes 5.5 hours and operates on a patchwork of single- and double-track sections. Recent improvements have helped to cut down on travel times and improve safety.

High-speed rail — connecting with regional commuter rail and other transportation options — is seen as an important driver of economic activity and social equity for the region.

“Everyone doesn’t own a car. Everyone can’t afford a car,” Rita Ali, mayor of Peoria, Ill., pointed out in some of her comments on the panel. Peoria, a metro area of some 350,000 people, is not currently served by passenger rail access, and Ali hopes the city is part of the proposed high-speed rail corridor.

Crucial to moving a project of this magnitude forward, say supporters, is coordination among multiple state agencies, transportation providers and political leaders.

“We need a forum to bring these people together to come up with a better plan. We need to start with the existing assets that we already have and figure out how to make them more productive and much more quickly,” Harnish said.

Another crucial component is the funding for the project, said Erin Aleman, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. She noted that money is needed for right-of-way acquisition, route-planning environmental studies and more.

A lot of "foundational work" has been laid for the project, said Aleman, referring to infrastructure improvements like positive train control, which allow trains to travel faster than 79 mph.

“But the build-out, again, is complex,” she said. “It takes many years … The scale at which the investment needs to be at is not insignificant.”

One of the most high-profile rapid rail projects in the country is under construction in California. The ambitious plan would ultimately connect Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes. The 520-mile project, first approved by voters in 2008, was estimated to cost $45 billion and be operational by 2020. Many delays and cost increases later, the project has been scaled as a phased development with the first phase covering 171 miles, connecting Bakersfield to Merced, with other segments to follow. The project’s final Environmental Impact Report has been released, clearing the way for development through the Los Angeles Basin.

“This Los Angeles rail corridor will connect the Hollywood Burbank Airport and Los Angeles Union Station — two key multimodal transportation hubs — providing future passengers clean, electrified high-speed rail infrastructure that will deliver sustainable, reliable and accessible transportation for generations to come,” said Brian Kelly, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, in a statement.

Still, another rail project — this one developed by Brightline, a private-sector company — aims to connect Las Vegas with southern California. Meanwhile, the Texas Central project would connect Dallas with Houston. That $20 billion, 236-mile project aims to be fully operational by 2026.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.