Communities, politicians jockey over Iowa passenger train funding

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DAVENPORT, Iowa. – The Iowa portion of the proposed passenger train from Chicago to the Quad Cities and Iowa City isn’t dead yet, despite a pledge from Iowa’s governor not to underwrite the service. This week the Johnson County Board of Supervisors will send a letter to state transportation officials pledging local contributions for the service, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported. Johnson County includes Iowa City, which would be the train’s western terminus.

The federal government has committed $230 million in high speed rail money to restore passenger service between Chicago and Iowa City. Advocates say they’ll push to eventually extend it to Des Moines, but Gov. Terry Branstad has said he does not support picking up Iowa’s share of operating costs, estimated at $3 million annually.

Johnson County board members expressed frustration that the state has not offered more support to the project. “The governor should just step up and pay these matching funds or say he doesn’t want a railroad here,” Supervisor Janelle Rettig said, adding that reducing traffic on Interstate 80 should be a state priority. Other local governing bodies have also indicated they would offer support for the service, including the Iowa City Council.

County support for the passenger rail would likely come from a property tax increase or from cutting other services. The county has not yet approved exactly how much it would be willing to contribute if plans for the Iowa City-Chicago project move forward.

As to whether there will be any money from the Federal government is another question. The U.S. House of Representatives last month voted to rescind 2010 funds for high-speed and intercity passenger rail, including money for the Chicago-Iowa City service. The vote was part of a larger measure to fund the government through September, which the Senate rejected Wednesday and is now part of bipartisan negotiations between Republicans and Democrats. Rail advocates are hoping to get the money restored when a compromise is reached.

Paul Rumler, executive director of the Quad Cities Passenger Rail Coalition, said he feels confident the money will come through. “I understand the project continues to move forward, and I didn’t get a sense the Senate was targeting passenger-rail funding in their version of any deficit reduction bill,” Rumler told the Quad-City Times.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told the Times yesterday he would back restoring funding for passenger rail in the 2011 budget as long as it’s a “national approach” and not seen as an earmark for the Quad Cities.
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