- Projected ridership and “dead end” route sank Peoria’s passenger rail dreams in 2011.
- Peoria mayor says the city will present a “totally different” plan than a decade ago.
- It will take a long time for the plan to come to fruition. Just ask Rockford.
Peoria’s leaders have once again launched an effort to get passenger rail service, this time hoping an entirely different plan and federal dollars can make a difference.
President Joe Biden wanted to go big on rail infrastructure in the $2.2 trillion infrastructure bill and allotted $80 billion to go toward the expansion of passenger rail.
Peoria wants a piece of that pie.
Ray LaHood, a former congressman and secretary of transportation under President Barack Obama, said in a news conference this month it was time for Peoria to “think big” about passenger rail now that federal dollars were available.
“When you look at a map of Illinois, there is no reason that Peoria does not have rail service, it’s the second-largest metropolitan area in Illinois,” LaHood said. “Our consensus is, we want to be a part of the system just like we are a part of the interstate system.”
Mayor Rita Ali said there was “no other time like now” for Peoria to pursue a passenger rail line. State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, secured millions of dollars for a feasibility study to be done as part of the state’s capital construction bill.
Path to passenger rail in Peoria
The path to getting passenger rail is is easier said than done, as Peoria’s past effort shows, but Peoria’s leaders are motivated and optimistic it will work out this time.
In 2011, IDOT conducted a feasibility study on whether or not Peoria would be fit for a commuter train that traveled between East Peoria and Bloomington. Ali said this time around, Peoria will present a “totally different” study.
The 2011 feasibility study showed adding the commuter rail service to Peoria would be an expensive project that would accrue heavy losses. And with an Amtrak station about 30 miles away in Bloomington-Normal, the Peoria idea was axed. Shuttle bus service to the Bloomington-Normal station was the solution. A Peoria Charter Coach route long has run between Peoria and Bloomington-Normal.
Read the study:2011 feasibility report on Amtrak in Peoria
But Peoria’s new plan is different from 2011. Ali said Peoria doesn’t want a commuter train that turned the city into a “dead end.” Her goal is to get a passenger rail line that connects Peoria to a major city such as Chicago or Indianapolis and travels at 160-180 mph.
“We want a train that comes from somewhere and goes somewhere,” Ali said. “We’re not looking at a dead end train, and that’s what that scenario last time was that Amtrak said would not be cost effective.”
Illinois Secretary of Transportation Omer Osman said the idea of connecting Peoria to the rail system was “appealing” and a “good investment.”
In a statement, IDOT said, “As part of IDOT’s overall effort to provide a mix of transportation options to communities throughout the state, we are committed to working with stakeholders and exploring those options, including the possibility of passenger rail service, in the greater Peoria area.”
What happened to 2011 plan?
A spokesperson for Amtrak deferred most questions to IDOT because Amtrak is not formally a part of this process yet. It is likely Amtrak will be asked to make a recommendation on the viability of passenger rail in Peoria based on the results of the study. An Amtrak spokesperson could not say what the company will consider in making its recommendation.
In the 2011 study, however, Amtrak said it looked at expected ticket revenue, operating costs and cost of improving rail infrastructure.
It was expected in 2011, based on IDOT estimates, that the cost of building a connection track between Bloomington and East Peoria would be $74 million. Estimations for building an East Peoria station were between $3 million and $4 million. A multi-level station with a parking garage like Bloomington-Normal’s carried an estimated cost of $47 million. A 300-foot platform with a small, heated waiting enclosure could have been built for $1 million.
Projected ridership was really what sank Peoria’s chances in the 2011 study. IDOT estimated that 75,300 one-way rider trips would be taken annually, generating ticket revenue of $375,000. The projected operating cost was $2.5 million.
For Amtrak, a Peoria station was not financially smart in 2011. But Ali said “you better believe” the billions in federal money dedicated to train infrastructure will be used to show why a track in Peoria would be cost effective.
“We are hoping to position Peoria to be able to tap into those federal dollars, those new infrastructure dollars that are set aside for passenger rail,” Ali said. “We have the support of many of our federal leaders like Sen. (Dick) Durbin, Rep. (Cheri) Bustos and Rep. Darin LaHood.”
Look:Peoria’s passenger rail history in photos
Ray LaHood could also make a difference this time around, Ali said. The former secretary of transportation will be using contacts with the “higher ups” at Amtrak and the U.S. Department of Transportation to set up meetings with himself and Ali to make it happen.
Rick Harnish, the executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance, said Peoria “definitely” needs frequent rail service and believes there is an appetite for it in the state. But he said the effort involves “many small hurdles,” such as the Illinois River, that Peoria will have to overcome. To get passenger rail to Peoria this time around, Harnish said it will take a lot of political effort.
There are five trains that run from St. Louis to Chicago every day; four of them are paid for by Illinois and operated by Amtrak. Harnish thinks this could be a possibility for a Peoria rail line. But it would take political gamesmanship and a willingness from the state to put the money in.
“This is really about the state taking a different direction to transportation and creating ways that we can get back to where you don’t have to drive to go somewhere,” Harnish said. “It’s up to the state to flip this.”
Beginning of a long process
Peoria is in the infancy stages of acquiring passenger rail in what figures to be a lengthy process. LaHood said he hopes the new feasibility study will take no more than six months.
Rockford was able to secure passenger rail this year. While its efforts contrast with Peoria’s in many ways, including how the project will be funded, the timeline Rockford could serve as an indicator of what is to come for Peoria.
Officials in Rockford are projecting its rail service could be operational in “late 2024 or early 2025,” according to state Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford. Stadelman, who was able to get $275 million for the rail line in the state capital bill, was one of the lead proponents of passenger rail in Rockford.
Peoria’s capital bill priorities:Peoria’s wish list included road repair money. Some projects will be funded, some won’t
The process of bringing passenger rail to Rockford began in 2009 with a feasibility study.
Between 2009 and now, the Rockford effort hit many speed bumps, including former Gov. Bruce Rauner pulling the plug on the project in 2015.
It was found to be feasible that Rockford could tap into a Metra line and create a direct line to Chicago, but using Amtrak is still on the table as well. This too was not without its hurdles, as freight train companies like Canadian National Railway did not want passenger rail on its tracks.
Stadelman said any investment in transportation infrastructure, including passenger rail in Peoria, is a good one. But his guess is Peoria is in for a “long haul.”
Ali said the federal dollars will hopefully accelerate the process for Peoria, and she is hoping this gets done in less than 10 years.
“It will take some time, but if we don’t start now getting things in motion and really pushing for expedition, then it could be even a much longer journey,” Ali said. “But I want it, I want it in my lifetime, I want it for my children and my grandchildren. This is so important to Peoria’s growth, future and stability.”