HSRA honors champions and discusses name change at fall meeting
The High Speed Rail Alliance honored several exceptional advocates for rail and transit service at its fall meeting on Oct. 23.
HSRA’s “high-speed rail champions” were Representative Jay Hoffman and Senator Steve Stadelman of the Illinois General Assembly, along with Illinois Deputy Governor Christian Mitchell. Sen. Martin Sandoval and Gov. J.B. Pritzker were honored in absentia.
HSRA’s executive director, Rick Harnish, pointed to their work in passing the 2019 Illinois capital bill, which includes robust funding for new and upgraded passenger rail lines and transit systems, in presenting the awards.
The $45 billion bill, a key priority for Gov. Pritzker during his first year in office, includes $275 million for new passenger rail service from Chicago to Rockford; $225 million for new passenger rail service to the Quad Cities; $122 for track improvements in Springfield; and $100 million for Chicago - Champaign- Carbondale track improvements.
Overall, the bill has about $1 billion for rail improvements and $4.7 billion for mass transit projects.
Gov. Pritzker “absolutely believes in transit oriented development and that, yes, it’s important in Chicago but could potentially be an engine for igniting jobs and opportunities in central and southern Illinois,” Deputy Gov. Mitchell said. “And that is reflected in this capital bill.”
Rep. Hoffman said that “from the very beginning our work was made much easier because of the work that” HSRA has done over the past decade in advocating for passenger rail, and through its membership in the Transportation for Illinois Coalition. Because of that, “there was a framework that was signed off on by business, labor, passenger rail, transit, and the roads and bridges community,” which created the political will for increasing the state’s gas tax to fund rail, transit, and other projects. “We did that, and it wasn’t an easy vote,” Hoffman said.
Sen. Stadelman, who represents Rockford, observed that the new passenger line to Chicago is especially important to the region’s economic vitality. “Whatever we can do to improve transportation options and increase our connectivity, that’s going to make us a much stronger region,” he said. “Younger people are “maybe willing to live in a periphery city like Rockford and commute. So as travel habits change, it’s important that we have that option available.”
Stadelman noted that Rockford is about the same distance from Chicago as Milwaukee, and the Hiawatha line between Chicago and Milwaukee runs seven trains daily.
Harnish also discussed HSRA’s recent name change and its relevance for the organization’s ongoing mission. “We can make a difference, and we really need to make a difference at the federal level. In order to make this work right, privately-owned freight railroads need to see this as a business, not a burden,” Harnish said. “That takes a change in federal policy. We need a bigger plan. That’s why we have decided to take Midwest out of our name. We’re still based in the Midwest. We’re still intent on getting a high-speed line built in the Midwest, as part of a network that includes big cities and small cities and improving transit in the major cities. But the challenge is we have to grow fast. And together we can do that.”
Harnish also noted that learning from California will be key. “California is the project that’s the furthest along, and if we’re going to talk about how to do it in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, we’re going to have to talk a lot about California,” he said.
Read and sign HSRA’s petition to Congress for better rail and transit service here.