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Ali, LaHood Discuss High-Speed Rail Prospects With Area Leaders

210806 Rita Ali-Ray LaHood.jpg
Joe Deacon
Mayor Rita Ali and former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood discuss the potential to bring high-speed rail service to Peoria on Friday at City Hall.

Mayor Rita Ali and former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood are on the same track in their assessment of talks to bring high-speed rail service to Peoria.

“We learned in our discussions that everybody's on board,” said Ali.

“We’re on our way; the train’s leaving the station,” said LaHood.

Ali and LaHood spoke Friday after a morning meeting with elected representatives and community leaders at City Hall to discuss the potential of getting Peoria connected to the railway system.

Other attendees included State Reps. Jehan Gordon-Booth and Ryan Spain, State Sen. Dave Koehler, Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Omer Osman, City Council member Sid Ruckriegel, Peoria County administrator Scott Sorrell, and county board chairman Andrew Rand.

“We all agreed that we want to make this a priority,” said Ali. “We're going to accelerate a study, and we're going to accelerate activities to bring high-speed rail to Peoria, passenger rail. We deserve it; Peorians deserve it.”

LaHood said Peoria has been left out of the train travel picture for too long.

“When you look at a map of Illinois, there's no reason why Peoria does not have rail service,” he said. “It's the second largest metropolitan area in Illinois. So our consensus today is that we want to be a part of the system, just like we're a part of the interstate system.”

The first step will be a study to gauge the feasibility of bringing train travel to Peoria.

“We have to prove to Amtrak that the ridership is here,” said LaHood. “You can't just go to Amtrak with a lot of goodwill and say, ‘We've been left out.’ You have to go with ridership numbers, and that's what we hope the study will show.”

Osman said he didn’t know if there is a specific potential ridership number that would convince Amtrak of Peoria’s worthiness. He said bringing rail capability to the city would be an enormous project, but well worth the effort.

“The idea of connecting Peoria not only to Chicago, maybe to other Midwestern cities is appealing. This is a good economic investment, from my point of view,” said Osman, noting the region could use a transportation option beyond air travel and the interstate highway network.

“What is missing is that direct passenger rail link, not just to Chicago. Perhaps Chicago, perhaps St. Louis, perhaps all the way to the west coast; we're looking at Peoria as a part of that system as a whole, not an end destination.”

LaHood said the city hopes to show it deserves some of the money dedicated to rail service in the Biden administration's pending $1 trillion infrastructure bill that has $200 billion dedicated to Amtrak improvements. Ali said the timing of the potential federal funding serves as added motivation.

“Money has always been a roadblock. Peoria doesn't have the budget to pay for rail, but there's an opportunity now. There's no other time like now to position ourselves for passenger rail,” said Ali.

Gordon-Booth said a $54 billion capital bill at the state level provides resources that were not available the last time Peoria explored the high-speed rail possibility, including the funds for the initial study. She said bringing passenger trains to the Tri-County would carry a hefty price tag.

“These projects typically cost in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars,” said Gordon-Booth. “So the reason why it is absolutely pivotal that we move forward quickly now is because we probably in most of our lifetimes will not see this much money in our system that will be available for Peoria or for anywhere in the country, for that matter. It’s incredibly important that we move expeditiously.”

Koehler agreed it’s too important to the region and to the entire state that Peoria is included in the rail system.

“Regardless of the particular strategy, we have to position Peoria so that it is part of the Amtrak system, and that has to be looked at in terms of a nationwide scope,” he said. “Illinois is the rail hub of America. I think we're in a good position to begin a strategy on how Peoria becomes part of that.

“It's just a matter of trying to do some assessments, figuring out what options people want and which are the most feasible. I think we have to do something that's going to give people a variety of options; just looking at Peoria to Chicago is not enough. It's got to be that Peoria becomes a through-point or a cross-point.”

Gordon-Booth said a previous study about Peoria’s transportation network access was flawed because it focused on using a bus connection to rail lines in Bloomington-Normal.

“As someone who travels a lot to Chicago for business, I have zero desire to take a bus from Peoria to Bloomington to then get on a train, and to then have to bring the train back to Bloomington and get on a bus back to Peoria,” she said, noting all options need to be considered since there’s currently no train service at all.

“When we think about what we do from here, obviously we'd like to be connected to a much larger location than Bloomington,” said Gordon-Booth. “But ultimately what we want to do as a top priority is make sure that residents of central Illinois and in particular Peoria have the ability to have access to rail.”

Among the other community leaders attending the meeting were Joshua Gunn of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, JD Dalfonso of Discover Peoria, Chris Setti of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, and Eric Miller of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission.

Ali said she sees high-speed rail service as a potential “game-changer” for the city’s economy.

“We're in the heart of the country, and everybody doesn't own a car. Access is important; that's an equity issue right there,” said Ali, who plans to hold monthly meetings to push the plan forward. “Everybody can't drive to Bloomington or they can't drive to Galesburg. So we want access for everyone, and that opportunity to travel, whether it's for social, cultural, business, work. We want those opportunities for everybody in Peoria.”

LaHood said the project would be a very long process that would require patience, but would benefit future generations. He also noted the push to boost rail travel nationwide is part of an effort to reduce highway traffic for both safety and environmental reasons.

But he said the primary reasoning for Peoria is tied to benefiting the community, creating job opportunities, and fostering economic development.

“We have the leadership and the community behind this, and we just need to make our case to Amtrak,” he said. “That's the bottom line, and I don't see that as an obstacle. I really don't. I've worked with Amtrak for a long, long time.

“If you make your case — and I think we will — I think we'll have a good partner in Amtrak.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.