Iowa rail project costs balloon; lead advocate throws in towel

$125 million estimated cost for Quad-Cities-Iowa City passenger rail link

Published: December 19 2013 | 5:26 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:06 am in
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The drive to build a passenger rail link between the Quad-Cities and Iowa City has hit a big roadblock.

A new analysis says construction costs for the connection have grown to $125 million, $35 million more than what was projected just three years ago.

The new figure — as well as a much higher state contribution — may well doom any chances of getting legislative approval for the link, even though the same analysis estimates the ongoing annual subsidy has shrunk dramatically.

The new estimate was presented by an Iowa Department of Transportation official at a meeting of the Bi-State Regional Commission this week.

The new figures don't have an impact on the Chicago-to-Quad-Cities connection, which still is scheduled to begin taking passengers in late 2015. But the goal of moving those people into Iowa and, eventually, to Nebraska, is now in doubt.

The increase in capital costs is substantial. Three years ago, the state estimated it would cost $90 million for the Iowa connection.

Increases in construction costs over the past three years and new federal standards for track and bridge upgrades have driven costs higher.

Tammy Nicholson, chief of the Iowa DOT's rail office, gave the presentation on Wednesday.

This latest analysis not only pushes the overall cost up, but the state's share would now be $72 million. That's triple what the state projected its part of the cost would be three years ago.

That increase is in large part because of the diversion of $34 million in federal money from Iowa to Illinois to help pay the costs of the Chicago-to-Quad-Cities link, according to the Iowa DOT.

Now, even one of the chief legislative advocates says there's no reason to keep pushing for the Iowa portion.

"Ultimately, as I view things, I think it’s an insurmountable lift for passenger rail," said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines. "It's time to cut our losses and move on."

Jimmy Centers, a spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, said he has not received a recommendation from DOT Director Paul Trombino yet. But when he does, the governor would "carefully review the recommendation and the project’s feasibility while keeping in mind the best interest of the Iowa taxpayers."

Branstad has long been a skeptic of passenger rail service in Iowa, objecting to the $3 million annual operating subsidy that would be required for the 58-mile connection in Iowa.

There still is local support for the link, however.

Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba said failing to advance the connection into Iowa would damage the state's image.

"This is a huge embarrassment," Gluba said at the Bi-State meeting on Tuesday. "Somehow Illinois's getting this done and Iowa's dragging its feet."

At Gluba's urging, the commission passed a measure this week urging the state move forward on passenger rail.

Paul Rumler, executive vice president of the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce and a key local advocate, said his focus is on establishing the Chicago-to-Quad-Cities link.

Illinois is establishing a long-term rail strategy, he said, and that will be the most likely counterweight to reluctance in Iowa.

“I think once it’s successful, we’re going to have to continue to make that push into Iowa," he said.

If Iowa doesn't move forward in the next legislative session, the $53 million in federal funds set aside for construction in Iowa may well be lost.

Passenger rail advocates have pushed for years for a connection between Iowa and Chicago.

Hopes for a connection got a huge boost when the Obama administration approved a $230 million grant in late 2010.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and then-Iowa Gov. Chet Culver of Iowa supported the local match required. But when Branstad retured to office he blanched at the annual $3 million subsidy that was needed. House Republicans also balked at the idea of appropriating the money for the project.

In 2011, the two states asked that the $230 million federal award be divided into two phases.

The new DOT study says the Iowa's share of the annual subsidy has fallen to $600,000, but that is a tentative figure. With the increase in capital requirements, however, it's not clear whether that would build political support for the project.

Illinois already had committed to its match, and it is working with the federal government, Amtrak and two railroads to complete agreements and establish a construction schedule.

Gena McCullough, a Bi-State official, said a representative from the Illinois Department of Transportation is expected at a meeting next month to give a status update.

An official with the Illinois DOT said it had hoped to have a publishable schedule by the end of the year, which among other things, would provide a projected start date for service.

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