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Sen. Durbin Advocates for Amtrak Reauthorization and Freight Rail Policy

Federal passenger and freight rail policy has important implications for the livability and economic prosperity of northeastern Illinois, as highlighted by the GO TO 2040 comprehensive regional plan. Amtrak provides substantial and growing service in the metropolitan Chicago area, with 3.7 million trips last year, while the CREATE (Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency) public-private partnership continues to seek substantial funding needed for the region's freight rail infrastructure.

Amtrak's current federal authorization, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, ends with the 2013 federal fiscal year. Prior to June 19 congressional hearings on Amtrak and Rail Safety Reauthorization, U.S. Senator Richard Durbin submitted a letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation asserting that the legislation should emphasize Illinois priorities for high-speed rail, Amtrak funding, mitigation of rail impacts on communities, rail freight funding, and support for job growth.

Increased Investment and Support for Communities
Sen. Durbin's recommended federal Amtrak investments would help improve both its financial position and on-time performance. As noted in his letter, a U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General report found that by increasing Amtrak's on-time rating to 85 percent, the company could see a net gain of $136.6 million that could be used to fund modernization of facilities and equipment.

Federal support for communities facing negative impacts from railroads is also an important feature of reauthorization, according to the letter. Noting that Illinois has the second largest rail network in the country, with over 7,300 miles of railroad track and more than 12,000 crossings, Sen. Durbin writes that improving safety and mitigating impacts will have quality-of-life and economic benefits for passengers and affected communities alike.

Initially authorized under SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users), the Rail Line Relocation and Capital Grant program helps local communities fund the horizontal or vertical relocation of track to mitigate community impacts stemming from railroad use, safety, motor vehicle traffic flow, community quality of life, or economic development. While the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation Committee proposed removing this grant program from reauthorization, Sen. Durbin requests its continued funding.

Addressing Freight Rail in Reauthorization
The Durbin letter acknowledges that national freight policy was included in the two-year transportation reauthorization bill MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century), while highlighting the bill's overall lack of attention to rail. He calls for a robust freight program that invests in rail infrastructure. Those investments could improve freight mobility while reducing fuel consumption, improving safety, and limiting greenhouse gas emissions, according to Durbin. Further, freight rail funds could also mitigate local community impacts. The letter is silent, however, on the potential sources of funding and on the types of projects that would be eligible beyond mitigating community impacts.

Investing in Passenger and Freight Rail in Metropolitan Chicago
Sen. Durbin's letter points out that Amtrak ridership in Illinois is higher than anywhere outside of California and the Northeast Corridor, with five million passengers last year. Noting that Amtrak has achieved record ridership levels for the past several years, especially in Illinois, he advocates for increased funding of passenger rail throughout Illinois, including the proposed Chicago-Rockford and Chicago-Quad Cities routes.

Funding for the CREATE program could also help address crossing conflicts, for example through investment in viaducts, road-rail grade separations and rail realignment, which could have significant benefits for rail users in the region and stimulate job growth, according to Sen. Durbin.

Local Action
Durbin's letter is consistent with CMAP's federal agenda framework on freight policy, which calls for federal investment in complete the CREATE program and establishing a dedicated funding source, along with incentives, for investment in the freight network and in multi-modal corridors of national significance.