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Federal passenger rail plan recommends Peoria link — eventually

Tim Shelley
Train tracks running near Adams Street near the McClugage Bridge, along the Illinois River in Peoria, Ill.

A newly released federal planning document recommends a new passenger railway connecting Peoria to cities like Bloomington, Galesburg, Champaign, and Davenport sometime in the next forty years.

The Midwest Regional Rail Plan, led by the Federal Railroad Administration, calls for an "emerging" circumferential route connecting those cities together. Such a line supports up to eight trains a day running up to 90 miles per hour. That line would come after the mainline is built out.

The hub of the new route would be located in Bloomington-Normal under the recommendation. That community is identified as a link along a regional rail network with core express potential to connect Chicago and St. Louis.

Regional service offers up to 16 trains a day traveling at speeds of 90 to 125 miles per hour, while a core express line has 24 trains potentially running in excess of 125 miles per hour.

The study's authors said a Chicago-St. Louis configuration running through Champaign-Urbana was eliminated from consideration due to higher capital costs and fewer transfer passengers than a circumferential route linking up to Peoria and Davenport through Bloomington-Normal.

The plan also recommends a potential Quincy connection to either Bloomington or Davenport, though that route is deemed lower-priority.

Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of policy and government for the National Association of Railroad Passengers in Washington, D.C., said the Midwest Regional Rail Plan provides a "useful blueprint" for the long-term vision of passenger rail in the Midwest, but he noted implementation is dependent on funding, including from the federal infrastructure plan now languishing in the U.S. House which has a guaranteed $66 billion in rail funding over the first five years after passage.

"The first thing you're going to want to do is pass the IIJA (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act)," he said. "This plan doesn't really mean anything unless there's funding behind it. So we need to get that funding."

Jeans-Gail said Illinois does have some inherent advantages, with Chicago already serving as a massive passenger rail hub and seeing that role expanded under the recommendations.

If the infrastructure bill does pass into law, the U.S. Department of Transportation has 180 days to approach states and ask for a priority list.

The $45 billion Rebuild Illinois capital plan also infuses capital into the state's already robust railway network. That much of the groundwork is already laid may help the state land more federal money in early funding rounds, Jeans-Gail said.

"This will be kind of like nitrous oxide injected into their engine, whereas some other people will still be building the car on the manufacturing line, to speak," Jeans-Gail said.

Jeans-Gail noted the 40-year Midwest Regional Rail Plan overlaps significantly with Amtrak 15-year vision, which calls for new passenger lines running to Rockford and the Quad Cities. Working well in coordination with Wisconsin to establish a new Chicago to Madison link could also help both states land additional project funding, he said.

That plan doesn't include Peoria, however. Peoria Mayor Rita Ali has made bringing high-speed rail service to the River City a high priority, going so far as to recruit former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to the cause to call for a new feasibility study to justify the vision.

Though the 90 mile per hour threshold proposed for Peoria in the 40-year plan falls below what many locomotive experts would deem "high-speed," it would mark the first time the community was served by passenger rail since a short-lived 1981 experimental route.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.