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A Peoria-to-Chicago passenger rail route could cost upwards of $2.5 billion. Here's why leaders are optimistic it'll happen

Peoria to Chicago proposed rail route
Patrick Engineering / Illinois Department of Transportation

Now is the time to establish a long-desired passenger rail route from the River City to the Windy City.

That's the optimistic tone local and state leaders struck at a press conference Thursday announcing the release of a feasibility study and public survey results on the $2.54 billion proposal.

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali says 95 percent of the more than 31,000 responses to the city's public interest survey indicated they would be likely to use the passenger rail service. About 39 percent say they would ride one to five times a year, and just over 4 percent say they would ride the train more than five times per week.

A ridership forecast conducted by engineering consultant Kimley Horn projected an average of 600 riders per day would utilize a passenger rail service running five daily round trips from downtown Peoria to Chicago's Union Station. Most people say they'd be willing to pay somewhere between $10 to $30 for a one-way ticket from Peoria to Chicago.

"It is a viable option. We have a green light to move forward. And I am very, very encouraged," said Ali.

The proposed passenger rail route would run from Peoria up along the Illinois River through LaSalle-Peru, Ottawa, and Morris, before branching up to Joliet, and ultimately, Chicago. A flag stop would be located in North Utica, near Starved Rock State Park.

The train presumably operated by Amtrak would include an engine, a café and business car, and two coaches. The train would run around 79 miles per hour.

The feasibility study prepared by Patrick Engineering for the city of Peoria and the Illinois Department of Transportation puts an initial cost estimate of around $2.5 billion on establishing the route, though that is subject to change. A 40% contingency is currently built into the estimate.

Tim Shelley
Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood speaks at a July 21, 2022 Peoria City Hall press conference unveiling the feasibility study and public survey results for a Peoria to Chicago passenger rail service.

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood says he's optimistic about what he's seen so far, based upon two meetings with Amtrak's CEO, and a meeting with the head of the Federal Railroad Administration.

"We not only have a good plan, and a good survey, and the interest from our community, but we have the interest at the federal level, which is absolutely critical. This project cannot be done unless we get the attention and the acceptance of the federal government," said LaHood. "And I think we're well positioned."

Peoria is the largest city in Illinois unserved by passenger rail service. The region was last served by passenger rail in 1981, when the Prairie Marksman briefly ran from Chicago to East Peoria. Passenger rail service in Peoria ended in 1978.

The idea of restoring passenger rail service to Peoria has been bandied about several times over the past decade or so. In 2011, an Amtrak feasibility study toyed with the idea of a new Peoria to Normal passenger rail line. Commuter bus service from Peoria's airport to Normal's Amtrak station has also been weighed in years' past.

LaHood says this moment is different, however, because of the $66 billion available for passenger rail through the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year. That means the money is currently available to make this project happen.

The passenger route would run along the routes of existing rail lines currently owned by five or six different freight and passenger rail companies.

Getting all of those entities on the same page could present a major logistical hurdle.

LaHood acknowledged negotiations with freight rail companies can be difficult, but he says he has experience in that realm through previous negotiations working with then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and freight rail companies to improve a passenger rail line running from Chicago into Southern Illinois.

"It was difficult and it took us a couple years to get the agreements, I would say that we're going to have to work with these freight rails that own the tracks. And some part of the tracks are being utilized and some aren't," said LaHood. "So we'll enter these negotiations eyes wide open, but with the with the idea that you can accomplish shared agreements with the freight rails, but it takes some negotiation to do it. And I think we're up to it, and I think eventually it will happen."

The railroads involved in the proposed route include the Tazewell and Peoria Railroad, Iowa Interstate, CSX Transportation, Metra, and Amtrak. The route mostly follows that of the former Rock Island Rocket line, with the exception of a final stop at Union Station rather than the LaSalle Street Station in Chicago.

Rail owned by Canadian National could also be included, depending on the final route selected from Joliet to Chicago.

Peoria City Manager Patrick Urich also acknowledged the optimal route from Joliet to Chicago isn't yet determined in the study.

"Really, the next step in this process is where you would start to hone down what might be the most affordable and best option to look at as you work that through," he said. "So that's kind of to be determined as we work through that process."

The host railroads weren't consulted for the feasibility study. The study assumes all the involved railroads would require capacity upgrades and additional maintenance to run both existing service and the new Peoria route.

As for a Peoria passenger rail station, consultants have narrowed down the potential sites to either the current location of the U.S. Post Office on State Street, or across from the Gateway Building on Water Street.

Hanson Professional Services vice president Cindy Loos said both sites have advantages and disadvantages.

"They both met the same high metrics, so they're both equal contenders," she said.

The post office site would require passengers and vehicles to cross the rail tracks to reach the station. The site near the Gateway Building would have is passenger platform near the Eaton St. and Hamilton Boulevard crossings, requiring extended gate-down times at those intersections when trains are stopped.

Loos said the third site adjacent to the historic Rock Island Depot was eliminated from further consideration due to size constraints.

A train crew facility and equipment layover facility would also be built in Peoria. There's no sites currently under consideration for those.

Tim Shelley
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali, left, introduces Morris Mayor Chris Brown at a July 21 press conference in Peoria. A proposed Peoria-to-Chicago passenger rail line would pass through Morris. Brown is supportive of the effort.

The Peoria passenger corridor will be included in IDOT's passenger rail plan this fall. Mayor Ali said the next step is gaining inclusion in the Federal Railroad Administration's corridor and identification program. That would bring additional financial and technical assistance to the Peoria proposal's Phase 1 study.

"For now, the FRA, Federal Railroad Administration, has only requested expressions of interest in this program. We've submitted our expression of interest along with about 15 others across the country," Ali said. "This fall, they will release a notice soliciting project proposals, and we have every intention to apply."

LaHood said no one should anticipate a fast process getting the Peoria passenger train on the tracks.

"We may not be riding on this train for at least 10 years. It will take some time to do it," he said. "And I don't want people to leave with the impression that because we're announcing this, and because Washington has the money, and because we're well positioned, that there's going to be a train running between Peoria and Chicago in the next few years. This will take a good deal of time."

Click here to review the full Peoria rail service study.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.