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Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012 06:08 pm

Third Street better for transit center

Springfield’s consideration of high speed rail has focused on how freight rail interrupts auto traffic, with little discussion of the best location for a combined passenger rail and multimodal transit center.

Decreasing use of oil is a vital national interest for economic, environmental and security reasons. Besides reducing reliance on oil, good passenger rail can bring more activity to the city center. It’s important that Springfield pick a location that will encourage use of mass transit.

The suggested location for a 10th Street multimodal center is currently a community hub for important nonprofit groups, local government offices and social service agencies. The surrounding blocks include the Salvation Army site that received $1.8 million in TIF funds, Triangle Center, Catholic Charities, Contact Ministries, Planned Parenthood, Urban League and the Springfield Housing Authority, among others. The county jail and courthouse are also nearby.

That leaves little room for new commercial or residential development. Proponents argue that a multimodal transit center would spur economic development. That’s unrealistic unless social service agencies are forced out. Local officials have not disclosed the costs of doing so or said where agencies would be compelled to relocate. If they are forced to move, it’s doubtful whether many of the cash-strapped nonprofits would be able to remain near downtown in close proximity to each other and the citizens they serve.

The alternative is to have a transit center surrounded by these valued agencies. Good transit centers should be located where people feel comfortable walking at night and leaving their car for the weekend.

Imagine the welcome a 10th Street facility would make to travelers. Nothing says “Welcome to Springfield!” like asking visitors trying to reach their hotel or tourist site to run a gauntlet of people going to and from a shelter, rehabilitation center or the county jail. It’s difficult to imagine a less suitable location for passenger rail.

The area surrounding the current Amtrak station, which the city spent $571,500 in TIF funds to upgrade, is dramatically different. Much of the infrastructure needed for a multimodal facility, including a municipal parking garage, already exists along the Third Street corridor location.

The blocks surrounding Amtrak include empty commercial, retail and residential space advertised for lease in the heart of downtown. Those locations would benefit from the increased activity that comes with a good mass transit center. It could become a focal point of downtown revitalization. That however, would require city leaders to view passenger rail as an opportunity, rather than merely an inconvenience that slows how quickly cars race away from downtown.

The Springfield corridor study failed to consider how improved mass transit on Third could attract new residents and increase property values downtown. They claim rail limits expansion in the medical district, but new construction continues. I felt one of the best benefits of living in the district was being within walking distance of Amtrak.

The businesses which might be most inconvenienced by an expanded Third Street corridor facility are a luxury car dealership and the private Sangamo Club. I suppose their clientele have more clout than citizens who use social services near 10th. That those most in need in our community are also the most likely to have services dislocated by rail consolidation is a serious social and environmental justice problem.

Springfield could have spent the past two years discussing the least painful way to accommodate freight traffic resulting from the new Joliet rail terminal. Instead, we have been presented a worst-case scenario with exaggerated postcard images and a steady drumbeat of hyperbole. We have been told a multimodal transit center would bring economic development to 10th Street, but mysteriously, the same facility would bring economic ruin on Third. It’s past time to have a calm discussion about passenger rail without the scare campaign.

Will Reynolds is an environmental advocate who has spent most of his life living near railroad tracks in Springfield. Contact him at will@willreynolds.us.
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