SPRINGFIELD — A top supporter of bringing high speed passenger rail service to Illinois says Gov. Bruce Rauner's plan to cut state aid to Amtrak is short-sighted and could actually cost the state money.
Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, said Rauner's plan to reduce the state subsidy from $42 million to $26 million could set back advances made on the various routes in recent years.
"It is remarkably more reliable than it was before," said Harnish, who was visiting the Capitol on Tuesday to lobby lawmakers against the proposed reduction. "It is really ridiculous to imperil those improvements."
He said Illinois is poised to begin running trains at higher speeds, shortening travel times for riders on the Chicago-St. Louis route that runs through Dwight, Pontiac, Normal and Lincoln in Central Illinois. And, the state is investigating a passenger rail link to the Quad Cities.
Harnish said the state and Amtrak need to continue working to improve the Chicago-Joliet portion of the trip to improve on-time performance.
"We're at a point where all these investments are about to pay off. Let's not screw it up," Harnish said.
Harnish said his is concerned the state will have to pay back money it took from the feds to pay for track improvements.
He said the price tag for construction along the routes could top $1 billion.
"We need to keep the service at what it is," Harnish said.
But an Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman disagreed with Harnish's contention that Illinois would owe the federal government for construction money.
"The state’s financial support for Amtrak’s annual operations is independent of any construction work that’s ongoing or has already taken place. A change in the state’s yearly commitment would not require IDOT to return any money to the federal government for track or crossing upgrades," said Guy Tridgell.
Tridgell said no decisions have been made on how the state would reduce service if the funding levels are reduced.
"We will be working closely with our transportation stakeholders and customers as well to keep them informed as the budget process moves forward. At the present time, no decisions have been made on frequency of service and timing for any Amtrak route in Illinois," Tridgell noted in an email.