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Strong community support may be key to getting Peoria passenger rail proposal on the right track

Railroad tracks along Water Street in downtown Peoria.
Tim SHelley
Railroad tracks along Water Street in downtown Peoria.

Peoria's passenger rail proposal is out the gate with a strong start, but it'll need consistent support from the community to keep the momentum going.

That's the takeaway of Rick Harnish, executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance in Chicago.

"The key to getting these things done as quickly as possible is that local residents of Peoria and the other communities continuing to push on the governor and the legislature to (putting in) the right resources and to doing it quickly," Harnish said.

The project could cost upwards of $2.5 billion. Cities and states across the country are competing for a slice of the $66 billion in funds to develop passenger rail in the bipartisan infrastructure law passed by Congress last year.

The Federal Railroad Administration is establishing a Corridor Identification and Development Program to facilitate the development of intercity passenger rail corridors.

While stakeholders across the country have expressed interest in the program via written comments, the FRA won't begin taking formal applications until late fall. The Peoria stakeholders want to use FRA funds to proceed with a Phase I report eyeing factors like environmental issues, preliminary design, and railroad coordination.

Harnish compares what's happening with passenger rail now to the creation of the national automobile highway network. Work began in the 1920s with a 50/50 cost split for construction of U.S. routes, but it wasn't until 1956 that the Interstate Highway System was established with the federal government funding 90% of project costs.

"That doesn't exist for passenger rail. And so this is a step in that direction, where the feds are saying, what kind of things do you think are out there? And how should we create a pipeline of projects? So it's a big step towards what we really need in an interstate passenger rail program," he said.

The Peoria-to-Chicago route would largely follow the route of the former Rock Island Rocket line. Segments of the rail line are currently owned by several different companies using it mainly for freight.

Harnish said he believes getting those companies to agree to shared use of the railway for passenger usage is doable, and ultimately comes down to striking the right business agreements.

The 79 mph passenger rail line would make five trips a day under the feasibility plan released by the city of Peoria, Illinois Department of Transportation, and other organizations last month. IDOT also included the Peoria project in the most recent iteration of the Illinois Rail Needs Assessment.

"It's an excellent proposal. Peoria certainly needs to have a direct connection to Chicago and then at Chicago, you can get the connections to other places," Harnish said.

More than 31,000 people responded to Peoria's public interest survey gauging initial reaction

He said routes like Peoria would serve as spokes on a wheel to Chicago, where one can easily catch a train to Rockford, Moline, Quincy, Normal, Springfield, St. Louis, Champaign, or Carbondale. He said a combination of bus and train could also connect Peoria to those cities.

"We really should have a statewide transportation network like that. And this is one big piece of that statewide puzzle. And it's really exciting that the Peoria community has taken this initiative," he said.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.