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High-speed rail grant re-routes state’s plans

by Ryan Craggs
Jan 28, 2010

$1.2 billion can do a lot of things. It's enough to buy every American four McDonald’s cheeseburgers. It would put 35,000 students through a year of Harvard. It even buys 700 Bugatti Veyrons -- or fills their tanks 16.8 million times.

But the same amount is not enough to build the high-speed rail network Illinois wants.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama announced $8 billion in stimulus grants for the development of high speed rail across the country. Illinois will receive $1.2 billion of the $4.5 billion the Illinois Department of Transportation requested.

“We could have used the whole $8 billion in one shot and still not have reached the goals we’ve got,” said Emily Tapia Lopez, program associate for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a non-profit that promotes regional growth.

The money will be spent in three main categories: $1.1 billion for track and coach upgrades on an existing commuter line between Chicago and St. Louis; $133 million for the Englewood flyover bridge; and $1.3 million to conduct further research on high speed rail.

“Part of the grant is for additional planning,” Tapia Lopez said. “We’re making sure there’s a long-term, comprehensive strategy.”

Although the grant represents an opportunity to upgrade tracks and rail lines to create a high-speed network, it won’t allow for a significant train speed upgrade any time soon. The maximum speed possible on rails laid with Illinois’ grant money will be 110 mph. Comparatively, California received $2.3 billion for its network of 220-mph trains.

“The 220 mph would take a longer period of time and quite a bit more money,” said University of Illinois-Chicago professor Joseph DiJohn. But, he added: “To get the maximum benefits, you have to go to the true high-speed rail. Yet the proposals here are a stepping stone where you’re only going to 110 mph and not getting all the benefits.”

The current upgrades are intended to relieve congestion, improve tracks, and eventually pave the way to a 200 mph network, Tapia Lopez said. Florida is receiving $1.3 billion to lay brand-new tracks between Tampa and Orlando, but given the cost, Illinois can’t afford to invest in all new rail. With so many train routes running through Chicago, rebuilding and rerouting trains would cost significantly more up-front.

"To rebuild with brand new track would make sense," said Tapia Lopez. "It would be great. But we have to start somewhere."