SPRINGFIELD - President Barack Obama's push to improve passenger rail service in the U.S. is running into a roadblock in his home state.

Just blocks from where Obama announced he was running for president, officials met Wednesday to try and untangle a growing dispute that could threaten the transformation of the Chicago-St. Louis rail line into a high-speed corridor.

At issue is a four-mile stretch running through the heart of Illinois' capital city.

The Illinois Department of Transportation has applied for a chunk of the $8 billion Obama has earmarked for high-speed rail development. The money would jumpstart improvements on the line, which runs through Dwight, Pontiac, Bloomington, Normal, Lincoln and Springfield.

"We see it as a project that would bring national recognition to Illinois," said Michael Payette, assistant vice president for Union Pacific, which owns the route.

But, Springfield officials and residents fear the addition of the fast trains, as well as a projected increase in Union Pacific freight traffic, will negatively affect traffic flow, emergency services and the quality of life for those living close to the tracks.

Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin and other top city and county officials want the Illinois Department of Transportation and UP to re-route the high-speed rail line to a different corridor in the city.

Davlin said IDOT shouldn't move forward with its application until more environmental studies are conducted.

For example, he said studies that IDOT is relying on were done before it was decided that the entire stretch would become "double-tracked," meaning instead of just one set of tracks, there would be two within the Union Pacific right-of-way.

But IDOT and railroad officials say the timeframe for applying for the federal money is too tight to honor the city's wishes. If the current applications for federal money are altered, the state would lose out on Obama's program, said IDOT railroad engineering chief Mike Garcia.

Members of the Illinois Commerce Commission, which hosted the jam-packed hearing Wednesday, urged officials to work together to resolve the dispute.

"I'd hate to see Illinois left out," said ICC Chairman Charles Box, the former mayor of Rockford.

It's not just Springfield where the push for high-speed rail has taken officials by surprise.

At the McLean County Regional Planning Commission, for example, executive director Paul Russell said the proposed changes are not on the radar of McLean County transportation officials.

"Neither we nor County Highways have received anything on this yet," Russell wrote in an email Wednesday.

Asked if there any planning documents that would outline the effects of high-speed rail on McLean County, Russell said there are not.

"Currently there are no plans in place that specifically address this," Russell noted.

In its application to the federal government for money to improve railroad sidings - extra tracks where slow trains can wait for faster trains to pass - IDOT acknowledged it had not contacted local officials about the possibility of work getting underway in their communities.

"No outreach efforts have been undertaken specifically for the sidings rehabilitation project," the application notes.

Davlin believes the there are alternatives that could be studied that wouldn't jeopardize the entire project.

"I still think there are opportunities for us to work this out," the mayor said.


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