Project snags in Metro East
Consulting engineers are trying to figure out how to bring the Chicago to St. Louis high-speed rail line across the Mississippi River to its destination in downtown St. Louis. However, once planning is completed, there is no money for any construction on the project south of Granite City.
“Right now I don’t believe there is any additional funding available for high-speed rail,” said Scott Speegle, the passenger rail marketing manager for the Illinois Department of Transportation. “But, two years or three years from now — sometime down the road — we’re hopeful. The reason these studies are necessary though at this time is they put us in a position so we’re ready to jump on money if and when it becomes available. Other states that haven’t done the studies will be behind us. If we didn’t do the studies and three years down the road there’s a pot of money that opens up for high-speed rail, we wouldn’t be able to get it.”
The same is true for an area in Springfield and the northern end of the line in the Chicago area as well. Engineers are currently evaluating elevating the tracks through Springfield as an alternative to the many at-grade crossings in the city.
In the stretch between Joliet and downtown Chicago, engineers are considering moving Amtrak from the Metra Heritage Corridor south to the Metra Rock Island District Corridor. The Metra Heritage Corridor is notoriously congested and the tracks are in poor shape, according to Speegle.
“They’re looking at what would need to be done to make that move feasible and they’re also evaluating the possibility of a new station somewhere between Chicago and Joliet,” Speegle said.
On the St. Louis end, engineers are analyzing two Mississippi River crossings to determine which would work best: the Merchants Bridge in Venice or the MacArthur Bridge in East St. Louis. A local group is pushing for the inclusion of a new Amtrak station in East St. Louis. It’s been reported that $500,000 has been allotted to pay for preliminary planning of this station but the source of those funds has not been identified. Speegle said that it was not being funded by IDOT, as is the other planning work, and that he did not know where that money was coming from. He did say that the East St. Louis station would only be considered if the optimal route to the St. Louis station at 14th and Clark Streets would be over the MacArthur Bridge.
On Oct. 18, a small group of public officials and clergy held a rally in East St. Louis in support of the proposed Amtrak station development.
The idea of another station, however, is strongly opposed by both Madison County and the city of Alton. Alton has been working for years on relocating its existing Amtrak station to the former Robert P. Wadlow Municipal Golf Course on Homer Adams Parkway. Development of the new $17.3 million station, which will also bring in bus service from Madison County Transit, is fully funded and under construction. The project is scheduled for completion by the end of 2016.
“I think the idea of an East St. Louis station is ludicrous,” said Mayor Brant Walker of Alton. “That area is less than two and a half miles from the St. Louis station, which is accessible by both highway and light rail. It just seems like a waste of taxpayers’ money. The idea of cutting down the stops in Alton and using the East St. Louis station half the time and the Alton station half the time is just ludicrous and it’s a disservice to taxpayers.”
But Speegle gave assurances that an East St. Louis station would not diminish stops in Alton.
“If there is a station built in East St. Louis — and I want to be clear that that decision has not been made at this point — but if it is, we’re assuring the folks in Alton that there will not be any change in the number of trains that stop there,” he said.
In July, the Madison County Board adopted a resolution supporting the Alton station as a regional hub for the high-speed rail line. In it, the board endorsed the use of the Alton and St. Louis stations as the regional Amtrak hubs and the use of the Merchants Bridge to connect the two, leaving no room for a station in East St. Louis.
Speegle said that IDOT would be holding a public forum locally sometime in late winter or early spring to present its plans and get public input.
Meanwhile, construction continues on the Granite City to Joliet stretch. This work is fully funded with a combination of federal and state money as well as private funds from the Union Pacific railroad. The 110 mph service should be available on most of the track from Joliet to Carlinville by the end of 2015, according to Speegle. He said that will reduce travel time by a half hour. By 2017, the entire Joliet to Granite City corridor will be upgraded to the 110 mph standard and that will shave another half hour off the overall travel time.
Those who have ridden Amtrak from St. Louis to Chicago know that the primary culprit for slow travel is not the speed of the trains but the number of unscheduled stops it is forced to make because it shares the track with the Union Pacific Railroad.
Speegle said that problem will be mitigated by the installation of double tracks running parallel to each other in some areas so that one train can be going north and one south at the same time. They are also increasing the number and length of some sidings to allow trains to pass each other more quickly.
“We do have a commitment from the UP (Union Pacific) to give our trains preference,” Speegle said. “So, if Amtrak is supposed to be at Carlinville say at 10:30 in the morning and there’s a freight train in that area at the same time, Amtrak is supposed to have preference and go first. Obviously it’s not going to be 100 percent in terms of that happening but we’ve got pretty good commitments from UP that that’s the way it will be as long as the Amtrak trains are within their windows of time. Amtrak is supposed to be getting preference.”
Speegle said that everything was proceeding on schedule so that the $1.6 billion high-speed rail project will be complete in 2017.