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Thursday, July 9, 2009 03:06 am

Not so fast

Existing freight tracks will impede Springfield high-speed rail development

Fast trains like this can’t begin operating in Springfield without the approval of Union Pacific Railroad.

Despite Springfield’s freedom from many of the rush-hour nightmares that plague other cities, traffic-paralyzing trains barreling through town at all the wrong times remain among the irritating facts of life here.

One idea that’s been kicked around for decades is to consolidate the city’s Third Street and 19th Street rail traffic onto the 10th Street tracks, cutting the number of at-grade crossing from 74 to 24. Before that happens, however, Omaha, Neb.,-based Union Pacific Railroad, which controls Springfield’s rights of way, will have to agree to come aboard.

This presents a challenge for local transportation officials wanting to move forward with plans for a high-speed rail line from St. Louis to Chicago, but who must assure Union Pacific that the trains won’t interfere with Union Pacific’s highly profitable freight business.

Some residents believe Union Pacific wields too much power in determining the city’s transportation future, but Illinois Department of Transportation director of planning Dick Smith says Springfield has an advantage in negotiating with the railroad because the city owns a substantial portion of the right-of-way in the Third Street corridor from about Ash Street to Cook Street.

“They told us what they want, but what they get out of that is another issue,” Smith says about Union Pacific. He points to a memorandum of understanding between Union Pacific and the state signed in May as a significant step in the right direction.

Under that agreement, the state would fund a study conducted by Union Pacific to determine the feasibility of running 16 passenger trains — eight each way — with top speeds of 110 miles per hour without impeding the railroad’s freight operations.

Springfield officials including Mayor Tim Davlin, Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy van Meter, and other local representatives, also met with Union Pacific in Chicago in late June to discuss high-speed rail, including possible routes and grade separation issues, says Davlin’s executive assistant Jim Donelan.

Working out theses details ahead of time could also improve the area’s chances of attracting federal transportation dollars, Donelan adds. Later this month, the state will submit its pre-application to receive funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. IDOT hopes to receive around $2 billion of the $13 billion President Barack Obama has committed to high-speed rail in the stimulus and in future budgets.

The nonprofit Midwest High Speed Rail Association is asking the state to request funds for an in-depth market analysis for its proposal to implement 220 mile-per-hour passenger rail service between St. Louis to Chicago, with stops in Springfield and Champaign, in under two hours [See “Fast trains,” July 2].

The association’s initial estimates put the price for the true high-speed system, which would work in concert with the state’s 110 mile-an-hour trains, at $11.5 billion for rail track work, electrification, signals, bridges as well as at-grade separations and railroad crossing safeguards.

Bill Logan, a member of the Springfield Park Board, is among those who is uncomfortable with the amount of leverage Union Pacific appears to hold.

“It sounds like the UP is now calling the shots,” Logan said at a recent meeting of the Springfield Citizens Club that focused on high-speed rail.

“It sounds like they’re taking the decision out of Springfield’s hands, like we won’t have any control over any kind of debate.”

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