Mayor of Normal looks forward to service on Amtrak board
President Biden recently nominated the mayor of Normal to a seat on the Amtrak board, which oversees the nation's passenger rail service. If the Senate confirms Koos, he would replace Tom Carper of Macomb, once also a mayor of a medium-sized municipality served by Amtrak.
Koos said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s office asked him to take the post when Carper’s term was close to an end.
“Senator Durbin and his staff said your name came up first because of what we've done in this community, leveraging passenger rail and the fact that I've become kind of a booster on passenger rail. I presented to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. I'm on the board of Transportation for America. I highly value the passenger rail system in the United States,” said Koos.
There are billions of dollars in new federal cash for Amtrak in last year's Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Koos said that makes the new position challenging as the board sorts through a lot of ideas.
“There's a tremendous amount of upgrade of infrastructure that needs to happen, especially in the Northeast Corridor. There are planned new routes, which are connector routes, connecting the national system to cities that don't have service now. I think that's going to be the really strong focus on it,” said Koos.
Some of the proposed connectors include expansion in Michigan, to Ann Arbor, to parts of Minnesota and to northern Wisconsin. Koos said those will have indirect benefits for central Illinois.
“It's like the hub airport system. If Amtrak is your choice for travel, it allows you to get more to more cities. It strengthens the national network as a whole,” said Koos.
Amtrak's Office of the Inspector General warned in a March report that the sheer size of the infrastructure law’s funding and requirements could strain Amtrak's ability to manage its current operations while it's doing the planning, and the long-term management of a multibillion-dollar infrastructure portfolio. Koos said it’s possible to avoid that.
“There is a significant challenge in administering the amount of money that's coming to Amtrak. But I think the current board and the future board are going to be up to the challenge,” said Koos.
High-speed rail in Illinois isn't high speed by global standards. Koos said nevertheless there can be further prospects for improvement in speed and frequency on the Chicago to St. Louis corridor.
“The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) just announced the completion of the ‘positive train control system,’ which is vital to running those speeds. And they've announced that Amtrak on certain sections will be running at 90 miles an hour to test the positive train control. Once those tests are completed and satisfactory, then they'll go to the full 110 mph” (on the Chicago to St. Louis corridor through Bloomington-Normal), said Koos.
He said there is less hope of going to a European or Asian standard of high-speed rail that can travel at 220 mph.
“I can just give you my own opinion on that. I think Chicago-St. Louis is too short of a distance. For that kind of routing, it needs to go longer. If you look at the high-speed trains in Europe, they travel longer distances and are supported by conventional rail feeding into that system. The other issue with the 220 mph trains is it has to be totally grade-separated. You can't have grade crossings. And the cost of doing grade separation like that would be astronomical,” said Koos.
Peoria area leaders are stumping for a proposed new Amtrak route from Chicago to Peoria. It would stay west of the Illinois River with stops in LaSalle-Peru, Ottawa, Morris, and Joliet, where it intersects with the existing corridor, and finally to Union Station in Chicago. That campaign is still in the early stages. Koos said he does not yet have a position on that issue.
“That's something I'm going to need to educate myself more on. Amtrak had some suggested new routes in the infrastructure bill, but they've always said, if there are other routes they missed, or requests, they will consider those. I think Peoria has a level playing field on that, and every right to pursue it,” said Koos.
Koos has now been nominated for the Amtrak board by both the Trump and Biden administrations. The Senate had not acted on the nomination when Trump was still in office.