Peoria's proposed passenger rail route would connect the River City to Chicago
The city of Peoria's proposed passenger rail route would connect the city to Chicago.
The Illinois Department of Transportation is currently conducting a feasibility study looking at a new passenger rail corridor running from Peoria through LaSalle-Peru, Ottawa, Morris, and Joliet up to Chicago.
Re-establishing passenger rail service was a stated campaign goal of Mayor Rita Ali. She formed a working group six months ago in conjunction with former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to build momentum for a rail link.
"Our efforts have resulted in the following the development of an initial case statement that helps to justify the case for bringing fast, frequent and affordable trains to and from Peoria. A vetting process that has resulted in the selection of a proposed train route," she said.
Peoria is the largest Illinois city lacking passenger train service. The proposed route wouldn't be a true high-speed rail line. Ali said it would likely reach maximum speeds of around 80 miles per hour - fast enough to get someone from Peoria to Chicago in a couple hours' time.
Peoria City Manager Patrick Urich said the proposed line follows the old Rock Island Rocket line. He said some right-of-way acquisition may be needed for a new railroad station in downtown Peoria, but the actual route is comprised of tracks currently in use by freight lines.
Previous studies in 2011 and 2013 didn't lead to any major movement. But Ali said new state and federal funding now available makes this moment different for Peoria. The IDOT feasibility study is expected to wrap up in April. City leadership hope to take that study, and responses from a new public survey, to meetings with Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington, D.C. to help make a case for the new rail line.
In addition to Peoria, Urich said the proposed route would also introduce passenger rail service in LaSalle-Peru, Ottawa, and Morris. He said those other cities will likely see similar public surveys circulate as Peoria works with them on establishing the route.
At-large Peoria City Councilmember Sid Ruckriegel said he's heard demand from Peoria residents for passenger rail since he first moved to the city in 1992.
"I think about the fact that rail, what does it mean for our area? It means economics. It means tourism. And it means quality of life. And really, when you really think what rail could add to our area as a another mode of transportation, it not only makes sense, it really makes dollars to our community," said at-large Peoria city councilmember Sid Ruckriegel.
Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Joshua Gunn said passenger rail could be an economic boon for Greater Peoria.
"This is about connectivity not only within the Peoria area, but within the state of Illinois, and really the broader super region of the Midwestern United States. And I look forward to the time when Peoria can once again be a hub, and a destination for business for visitors," Gunn said.
J.D. Dalfonso, president and CEO of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the seven-county Peoria region was generating $686 million in annual tourism dollars pre-COVID. The new transportation links could help regional tourism thrive by making the city more accessible to retirees, families, and people of any socioeconomic status.
"The more access we have for visitors and residents alike to access Central Illinois, the better it is for that economic driver moving forward. And many of us in this conversation think about how rail can benefit our residents here, but from our standpoint, we're also thinking the visitors along this route. LaSalle, Peru Ottawa, Morris, Joliet, and Chicago, to access Peoria and central Illinois all the same. So we could be using this to get to those destinations, but many of the residents along this route can access Peoria, as well," Dalfonso said.
Eric Miller, executive director of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, said funding is set aside in his organization's fiscal year 2022 budget to study establishment of a multimodal center somewhere in downtown Peoria for passenger rail, and potentially other modes of transportation. Urich said some potential sites could include the old Rock Island station and the city-owned Gateway Building. Miller said at least three downtown Peoria sites will be looked at for the train station.
Ali said a previous study looked at connecting Peoria with the Bloomington Amtrak line, but she said that's not something Peoria city leaders are interested in now.
"We want to have more of a direct gateway and pathway to a larger city that can connect to other cities around the country. And this route gives us that opportunity," Ali said.
Ridership and cost estimates aren't yet available, but Ali said federal and state funding will be needed to support the effort.
Ali said having rail directly accessible in Peoria removes transportation challenges for people who can't easily get to Bloomington or Galesburg to catch a train. She said she doesn't believe either community would lose much ridership if Peoria were to launch a line. Dalfonso said economically, he doesn't see the Peoria proposal as competition to those lines or communities.
There is no firm timeline for the next steps after the survey and feasibility study is completed, but Ali said it would likely entail applying for competitive funding and planning grants.
"We are committed. We are are moving forth with a strong effort. And I hope and pray it turns into reality for Peoria," said Ali.