BY MARY WISNIEWSKI AND LYNN SWEET Staff Reporters
Illinois will get $1.1 billion to make track improvements to enable 110 mph passenger trains between Chicago and St. Louis, under a new federal stimulus plan to be announced Thursday by President Obama.
Coming off of his job-focused State of the Union address, Obama is expected to award $8 billion in stimulus funds to create high-speed rail corridors and sell the program as a jobs creator. He plans to announce grants for 21 states.
"An investment of this magnitude could not have come at a better time for Illinois," said Illinois Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Crete). "I hope to see these funds putting people to work as soon as possible."
The federal funds will be used to overhaul track, signal systems and existing stations. The Amtrak route includes Springfield and Bloomington-Normal. Increasing speeds from 79 mph to 110 mph would shave about 90 minutes off the five-and-a-half hour trip from Chicago to St. Louis.
Illinois officials had asked for about $4.3 billion. States have asked for more than six times more money than was available.
"It just shows there is huge demand and interest around the country for high speed rail," said Brian Imus, head of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group.
The biggest winner in the high-speed rail sweepstakes was California, which will get $2.3 billion for projects that include new track construction, not just improvements to existing routes.
The Illinois application was submitted in concert with applications from neighboring states, as part of a proposed eight-state rail network.
Other Midwestern projects that will get money include $822 million for Wisconsin, to upgrade routes between Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison.
The funding package includes $244 million for station and other improvements between Detroit/Pontiac and Chicago.
The grants expected to be awarded Thursday will define which projects get off to a fast start. But billions more will be required to complete the planned high-speed corridors. There is also $50 billion for high-speed rail funding in the proposed transportation reauthorization bill, noted U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Chicago), who has pushed for the bill's passage.
"The first steps are upgrading the existing track," said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. "Both Illinois and Wisconsin have very solid proposals. My hope is that Obama will make a clear statement that the goal is to have 220 mph trains operating in the Midwest."