Amtrak derailed by Rauner

Proposed Quad Cities, Rockford service slow to regain steam after funding was halted during state budget impasse

 The John Deere Pavilion and other relatively recent buildings stand in wait for new Amtrak service in Moline. The new station would be at the far left across the tracks. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

The John Deere Pavilion and other relatively recent buildings stand in wait for new Amtrak service in Moline. The new station would be at the far left across the tracks. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

What if they built a railroad depot and no trains came?

That's the situation the Quad Cities find themselves in after proposed Amtrak service between Chicago and Moline — originally expected to begin in 2016 — has been held up by the state budget impasse and other snags.

"They haven't given us any kind of date" for completion of the project, said Ray Forsythe, Moline's economic development director.

A $177 million federal grant that got the project rolling in 2011 has been extended to this time next year, but service is no closer to getting underway. Gov. Bruce Rauner halted funding for the project shortly into his term in 2015, blaming the state budget impasse. While funding has since been reinstated, the project is still mired in logistical problems, with track improvements required on the western end of the line between Moline and Wyanet, owned by the Iowa Interstate Railroad.

According to Forsythe, the Illinois Department of Transportation was leading the project at this point. IDOT spokesman J. Scott Speegle said the agency is working on it with the Federal Railroad Administration.

"The extension allows IDOT to continue working with the FRA and Iowa Interstate Railroad on preliminary engineering studies that will determine the full scope of improvements necessary to facilitate passenger trains between Wyanet and Moline," Speegle said. "The current preliminary engineering activities include inspection and assessment of bridge structures and track conditions, grade crossing design, signal and systems design, and track rehabilitation planning."

There's no timeline for service to begin.

A year ago, Rich Harnish of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association blamed Rauner for the failure to get service going, telling WQAD-TV, "The reason why this project isn't done yet is because he put it on hold when he came into office."

Moline Mayor Stephanie Acri expressed confidence earlier this year that it would eventually get done. U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos of Moline echoed that in comments to the Dispath-Argus newspaper, while also laying blame at the governor's feet. "Gov. Rauner put this federal funding on hold for more than a year,” she said. “So it’s taken a lot of work to get it back on track. I am happy that the state is now working with us to establish a passenger rail link between the Quad Cities and Chicago, and I will continue to push them to get it over the finish line."

An Amtrak feasibility study estimated that more than 100,000 people would use the line annually a decade ago, when U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and his then junior colleague Barack Obama urged Amtrak to renew rail service previously known as the Quad City Rocket to and from Chicago .

A proposed Amtrak line between Chicago and Dubuque, Iowa, via Rockford, known as the Black Hawk, also had its state funding cut off by Rauner and has never gotten back on track.

Speegle pointed out it was approved in 2014 under Gov. Pat Quinn. "Since the change in administration in 2015, the project has been under review," he added. "No timeline has been established."

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Village of Huntley spent $50,000 on engineering plans for a train platform before the project was scuttled.

 Westin's Element Hotel opened earlier this year in downtown Moline, but Amtrak service expected to shuttle travelers to its doors hasn't followed. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Westin's Element Hotel opened earlier this year in downtown Moline, but Amtrak service expected to shuttle travelers to its doors hasn't followed. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Forsythe said that in the Quad Cities $37 million was invested in a public-private partnership to convert a former Sears warehouse alongside the tracks into a hotel and train station. Some $10 million of that was in federal funding, $5 million from the state, and $6 million from Moline, with the balance paid by the developer.

The new Westin hotel, known as the Element, opened this year, with first-floor retail to follow next month. A facility within the same building, known as the Q, would serve as the depot. While admitting that the city was disappointed in the delay, Forsythe said the inconvenience was kept to a minimum.

"Definitely we were planning on it in the future," Forsythe said. "But the hotel developer moved forward knowing that the train was coming in the future. They were comfortable with the market."

The immediate area along the tracks in downtown Moline has seen considerable development over the past decades, including an arena now known as the TaxSlayer Center and the John Deere Pavilion, celebrating the farm-machinery firm's roots in Moline.