Illinois High Speed Railway Commission holds first meeting

It could have national impact.

The Alliance has deep roots in the heartland. We were founded and are located in Chicago, and we believe the nation’s transportation system will be transformed from the inside out. Better trains in the Midwest will create a powerhouse region in the middle of the country, which will incentivize investments in better train service across America.

But that will happen only if there is a compelling vision and strong leaders committed to advancing it.

Which is why I was thrilled to take part in the first meeting of the Illinois High Speed Railway Commission on Tuesday. The 21-person Commission will meet a minimum of four times annually and deliver a report each year to the governor. Its official task is to create a statewide plan for a high-speed line and feeder network connecting St. Louis and Chicago “that includes current existing Amtrak and Metra services, connects the cities of Rockford, Moline, Peoria, and Decatur, and uses inter-city bus service to coordinate with the rail line.”

Plans for limited 110 mph service between Chicago and St. Louis have been around for many years. That project has delivered much-needed upgrades on the line, but its ultimate goal has been delayed for various reasons.

The Commission creates new energy for establishing true high-speed train service between Chicago and St. Louis. It is exciting for that reason alone. But it is about much more than that. In fact, it can be the catalyst for a broader transformation of the U.S. transportation system.

That’s true for three reasons.

First, it will create a statewide rail plan that includes all forms of passenger-train service (along with supporting bus lines) and every part of the state. In the U.S., this approach is almost unheard of outside of California. But a statewide rail plan is the only way to coordinate—and maximize the value of—all the different systems. With a statewide plan, the Chicago-to-St. Louis line is much more than just a service that connects two big cities. It becomes the spine of a thriving and truly statewide transportation network. We call this the integrated network approach. It’s the foundation for everything we do.

Second, Chicago and Illinois have long been the hub of the nation’s railroad system. What happens here has a big impact on the entire national network. Which means that Illinois is a great laboratory for tackling challenges and creating solutions. And the Commission creates a tool for doing exactly that. By being a high-profile source of best practices and lessons learned, it will put Illinois and the Midwest at the forefront of creating a national network of fast, frequent trains.

Third, the Commission puts the state’s railroad network on the agenda of leaders, influencers, and decision makers in a way that hasn’t been true for a very long time. Which is huge. Progress doesn’t just happen. It requires vision and fierce, persistent, and patient advocates. As the analyst Eric Goldwyn said during a recent Alliance webinar, “We need to find champions within our government—very specifically, the ones who have the power to get people to do stuff. It’s going to be the governor and mayors. We really need to get those people involved.”

When the major railroad news in Illinois was the Chicago-to-St. Louis line—and the focus was mainly on how the line would impact those endpoint cities—leaders across Illinois had little investment in its success. The new Commission completely changes the equation. With its statewide focus, it creates stakeholders out of business, civic, and political leaders in every corner of the state. It gives them opportunities to deliver real, tangible benefits for their companies and constituents.

In short, it creates paths for progress at the local, state, and regional levels that could lead to dramatic progress at the national level. The Commission’s second meeting is scheduled for late May. As always, I would love to discuss any aspect of its work with you. Together, we can help it fulfill its potential in Illinois and far beyond.

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