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Starved Rock Country leaders are all aboard Peoria-to-Chicago passenger rail proposal

The former Rock Island line railroad station in Ottawa, Ill.
Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/58474130@N07/7039788753
The former Rock Island line railroad station in Ottawa, Ill.

The newly unveiled Peoria-to-Chicago passenger rail route proposal would run straight through the heart of Starved Rock country.

Economic leaders in north-central Illinois say the potential service would provide a range of benefits.

Kevin Lindeman is executive director of the North Central Illinois Council of Governments (NCICG), a regional planning organization. He said both his region and the Peoria region have previously studied passenger rail possibilities, and he hopes the latest plan out of Peoria will move things forward.

"We think this passenger rail service through our region would be great for everybody, and provides better access to both Chicago and Peoria," Lindeman said.

The proposed line would follow the route of the former Rock Island Railroad Rocket line, heading from Peoria and through LaSalle-Peru, Ottawa, Morris, and Joliet on the way to Chicago. Peoria City Manager Patrick Urich said because the route is an already established rail line used by freight trains, no major right-of-way acquisitions would be required to lay down new tracks.

Katie Korn, the NCIGC human services transportation planner, notes a rail option would be particularly helpful for patients traveling to medical appointments in Peoria or Chicago.

The current options are highly limited. Korn said if family can't take the patient to their appointment, the other option is to catch a bus. But those can only take them as far as the county line.

"So they would have to go from county to county and change buses, change transportation," she said.

A bus in Bureau County is authorized to take patients to Peoria, but that still requires a longer trip for patients, Korn noted.

Jeff Hettrick, the executive director of the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce, said leaders in the local business community are excited about the idea.

"We can see the benefits from not only our residents who can take a train and go all the way down to Peoria. Our understanding is it's only about four blocks from there to the hospital if you have a doctor's appointment," he said. "Or on the other end, take a train and go up to Chicago and spend a day at the museum and not have to worry about traffic or expensive parking in the Chicago area. So we're excited and can see potential for residents."

Mayors Chris Brown of Morris and Ken Kolowski of Peru also see several advantages of the potential addition of commuter rail service.

“Anytime you can bring people conveniently into and out of your community, it's a very positive thing,” said Kolowski. “Whether it’s coming here for our restaurants and retail or visiting, or vice versa — people can jump our train here and come down to Peoria and support establishments down there. It's a two-way street.”

Brown said having the access to commuter rail service would open the door to new experiences for residents while also attracting visitors.

“A lot of our residents that live in this area want an improved quality of life, and that's having festivals and things to do where they don't have to drive far away,” he said. “Being able to hop on a train to go do one of these things, I just think it'd be really cool and I think it only helps us grow as a community.

“Just being able to have that transportation to be able to do different things improves that quality of life. It definitely provides a lot of options, especially for college students, whether they're Bradley or downtown (Chicago) or wherever. I just really think it could be a huge improvement for our area.”

Economic development planner Duane Calbow said passenger rail would connect the rural communities in Bureau, Grundy, LaSalle, Marshall, Putnam, and Stark counties to much-needed services in larger metropolitan areas, and provide commuter opportunities which don't exist now.

"It's very important to link the rural communities with the major metropolitan areas. And, you know, for business and personal tourism, and all those things connected with economic development," said Calbow.

Hettrick said the Ottawa area's economy has shifted heavily towards tourism in recent years.

"Ottawa is a destination. If you haven't been to our downtown, we have a lot of independently owned and run restaurants. So they're family run. They're unique. There's a brew pub, there's Italian style pizza, there are things that you just don't see in chain restaurants," Hettrick said. "So we get a lot of tourists, and the train could also help this."

Hettrick said a train would bring tourists most of the way, leaving local cities like Ottawa, LaSalle and Peru primarily concerned with last-mile transportation from the stations to hotels, restaurants, and nearby Starved Rock State Park.

"There's over two million visitors to Starved Rock every year, and maybe even more than that, and it's a great opportunity to travel a day, travel to get down to the area, to our north-central Illinois area, to do that kind of thing," Calbow said.

The Illinois Department of Transportation is currently conducting a feasibility study on the proposed Peoria-to-Chicago route. It's expected to wrap up in April. Details like ridership estimates and cost are still forthcoming.

The City of Peoriais also gathering public input via a survey, in an effort to bolster the case to Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration for furthering efforts to establish the passenger line. Urich told WCBU on Friday the survey had generated nearly 23,900 responses over the first four days.

Peoria city leaders are working in conjunction with former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood on the pitch to federal authorities, giving Kolowski added optimism.

“It's an exciting thing and it sounds like there's some good headwind behind it, so we're looking forward to it,” he said . “We'd love to sit down and say, ‘OK, who's going to get possible depots?’ There's all kinds of things that we worked out, but one thing about Peru is we're a team player. Sure we’d love to have a depot here in our town, but the Illinois Valley is a large community and just as long as we get something, that'd be great.”

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.
Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.