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Peoria takes ‘huge next step’ in effort to bring Amtrak passenger rail to the city

Ray LaHood Peoria
Thought Leader: Ray LaHood
December 7, 2023
Source: Journal Star

Peoria will receive $500,000 in federal funding to continue its push to bring an Amtrak passenger rail line to the city.

Leaders from around Peoria and the state of Illinois gathered at Peoria City Hall on Thursday morning to announce what they called a “huge next step” in the goal to secure a passenger rail line from Peoria to Chicago.

The funding means Peoria will now be a part of the new Corridor Identification Program for passenger rail. It is a major step forward for Peoria’s passenger rail efforts and something Mayor Rita Ali has been hoping to see for some time.

Ali said receiving the news on Peoria’s inclusion to the program was “exhilarating.”

“This new corridor identification program is a huge next step in bringing passenger rail service to and from Peoria,” Ali said.

Ali was joined at City Hall Thursday by former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, numerous other civic leaders from around Peoria and representatives of other cities on the proposed rail line such as Morris and LaSalle.

LaHood, who lives in Peoria, said the rail project would be a major economic development boon for Peoria and the other cities involved on the route including Morris, LaSalle, Utica, Ottawa and Joliet.

“Getting this designation means we are on the map — the rail passenger map at U.S. DOT. They’ve not only awarded us a designation, they will provide $500,000 to help us with the planning for the corridor and what it will mean in terms of economic development and opportunity,” LaHood said. “This is not just a train that will deliver people from Peoria to all along the corridor, this is an economic development project.”

Daniel Bien, an aide to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, said Thursday he was glad to see Peoria’s application for the grant come to fruition and said the rail lines provide “lifelines and links to communities around our state.”

Morris Mayor Chris Brown highlighted the impact this rail line would have on smaller cities on the route such as Morris.

“What this does for communities like Morris, Utica, LaSalle-Peru, just does a tremendous job for economic opportunity, for jobs for our region,” Brown said.

Downtown Peoria would be the home to a train station in the city. The downtown post office and riverfront Gateway Building have been identified as the two possible locations.

Ali said a train station would be transformative for downtown Peoria.

“Development of downtown is one of our six top priorities over the next five years so we know that a thriving downtown means a thriving city,” Ali said.

Peoria is the only metro area in Illinois of its size to not have passenger rail. It is also home to LaHood and Illinois Secretary of Transportation Omer Osman.

“Doesn’t it seem a little odd that the former secretary of transportation and the current Illinois secretary of transportation live in a community that doesn’t have passenger rail?” LaHood said.

What are the next steps in securing Amtrak for Peoria?

By no means is this new federal funding a final step however as billions more dollars in funding and years of rigorous planning are still necessary

The $500,000 grant from the federal government is just step one of a three-step process in developing a preliminary service and engineering plan for the project.

Step one of the process includes building a schedule and budget for service development planning and figuring out the corridor-specific scope of the project.

Step two of the process is where the city of Peoria will have to begin spending some of its own money to the tune of a 10% match of federal funding. In step two, a service development plan is drawn up in which capital projects are identified.

City Manager Patrick Urich estimated Peoria will have to spend roughly $200,000 in step two.

Step three is where preliminary engineering for the project will be done and an environmental review will happen. In this phase, Peoria will have to put up a 20% match to whatever federal funding comes in. Urich said the city has already budgeted for this expense.

LaHood said it will probably be around 10 years before passenger rail service is up and running in Peoria. The project is currently in its planning phase and still must go through its development, design and construction phases. All of which are very costly and time consuming, LaHood said.

“These projects take a long time, they have to go through a lot of communities, you have to get the support of people and they’re enormously expensive,” LaHood said. “So we’re not fooling ourselves to think that people are going to be riding trains in the near term.”

Ali noted it took Bloomington roughly seven years to get its Amtrak service operational from its conception.

Ali and LaHood said, too, that negotiations would still need to be held with the freight train companies who control the rail lines. The Peoria passenger rail project would build no new rail lines, meaning existing freight lines would have to be shared.

LaHood, who has experience with these negotiations, said the freight companies will not come to the table ready to make a deal but through the negotiating process will typically agree to scheduling and financial terms.

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