Happening Now

Iowans Shouldn't Have to Wonder "What If?"

January 7, 2014

Written By Colin Leach

For many years now, rail advocates in Iowa have worked hard for the restoration of regular service to the eastern part of the state. From 1974 to 1981, Amtrak ran the Black Hawk , which offered a daily connection between Dubuque and Chicago. While the Black Hawk was discontinued following a decrease in Illinois state funding, advocates have maintained that the route would be popular. In 2010, their efforts were rewarded when the federal government issued a $230 million grant to study not just the restoration of the Chicago-Quad Cities route, but with a further extension to Iowa City. Before long, Iowans would be able to comfortably travel to Chicago, skipping both the drive on Interstate 80 and avoiding the hassle of trying to find a flight through either Dubuque or Des Moines.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with rail service, politics has interfered with the expanded service. In December, the Iowa Department of Transportation announced that budget concerns forced it to shelve plans for passenger service between the Quad Cities and Iowa City. Office of Rail Transportation Director Tammy Nicholson claimed that the most recent estimates would force the state to spend $72 million on the service, a price tag far in excess of the $20 million predicted in the original estimate.

In its editorial, the Quad-City Times argued that the blame should be laid at the feet of Governor Terry Branstad. Branstad had repeatedly gone on the record opposing any expansion of Amtrak into his state, believing that the required investment was something the state could not afford. At an October press conference, the Governor said that “considerable skepticism” existed about the service’s feasibility, noting that the state was already served by the California Zephyr.

Yet Branstad’s argument ignores the fact that the Zephyr serves only a small number of communities in the southern part of the state, including Osceola, Ottumwa, Creston, Mount Pleasant, and Burlington. Notably, major population centers such as Des Moines, Iowa City, and the entire Quad Cities region are left out; thus, theZephyr cannot be said to adequately serve the entire state. Furthermore, the Zephyr only stops once a day in each direction. This service, while essential, is no substitute for the corridor with multiple frequencies envisioned by federal and state planners. By their very nature, corridor services offer multiple frequencies, creating more options for travelers to choose from as well as more options for connections at their final destination.

But the Governor has another argument against passenger rail. Many of his fellow Republicans, he notes, have similarly rejected proposals for expanded Amtrak service in their states, and he sees no reason why he should be an exception. After all, the argument is purportedly the same across the board: why, in an era of tight budgets, should state governments use public funds to build out transportation infrastructure?

As NARP has argued time and again, it’s a fallacy to argue that passenger rail represents a unique subsidy of transportation. All modes of passenger transportation are subsidized, and none can exist without some form of government support. Whether riding on highways or wandering through airports, traveling in buses or trains, all travelers use some form of government-subsidized transportation. It’s intellectually dishonest to claim that Amtrak represents a unique public subsidy, when we know that highways and airports are even more heavily subsidized.

Furthermore, Branstad’s suggestion that Republican Governors are generally of one mind about passenger rail doesn’t hold water, and wrongly assumes that passenger rail is necessarily partisan. Perhaps he should speak to Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, who presided over that state’s largest investment in transportation in decades. McDonnell has long been a supporter of passenger rail and was a strong backer of extending service to Lynchburg and Norfolk. Most recently, he championed a transportation bill that created a dedicated source of funding for Amtrak services in the state, allowing the state to plan a new extension to Roanoke.

But McDonnell isn’t the only Republican to back passenger rail. In October, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled legislature voted to preserve state funding for the Blue Water, Pere Marquette andWolverine. Additionally, the state has also committed funds for track upgrades that will allow for increased speeds and faster travel times. And to this list, we can even add states such as Pennsylvania and Indiana, where Republican state legislators were among the most active voices calling for the preservation of the Pennsylvanianand the Hoosier State. All of these examples show that improved passenger rail service isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue; it’s an American issue.

In rejecting the Iowa City extension, Governor Branstad is missing out on an excellent opportunity to invest in the future of the state’s transportation network and offer Iowans more travel options. And worse for Iowans, the money originally destined for Iowa hasn’t been rescinded; instead, it has been reassigned to Illinois for its own trains. Iowans will instead have to look across the Mississippi to catch a glimpse of what might have been for their own state.