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updated: 8/13/2012 5:10 AM

Love high-speed rail? Hate it? Here's your chance to opine

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  • Is the 110 mph train planned for a Chicago-to-St. Louis route all that "high speed" compared to to Japan's 200 mph Shinkansen bullet trains? That's one question being asked about Illinois' plans for high-speed rail.

      Is the 110 mph train planned for a Chicago-to-St. Louis route all that "high speed" compared to to Japan's 200 mph Shinkansen bullet trains? That's one question being asked about Illinois' plans for high-speed rail.
    Junko Kimura/Bloomberg

 
 

Are five more daily trips and a shorter time to get from Chicago to St. Louis worth $3 billion? Is 110 mph really "high-speed" compared to the 200 mph bullet trains of Asia? What suburb will serve as a stop along the route? Why am I asking so many questions?

Hey, there's a lot to ponder as Illinois continues its pursuit of high-speed rail, and here's the latest.

Work is under way to build a Chicago to St. Louis high-speed rail route. The plan costs $1.4 billion and is funded, with 95 percent of the total coming from the federal government. Top speeds are 110 mph between Joliet and Alton, a town just outside of St. Louis, compared to the current 79 mph. It would shave travel times from 5 to around 4 hours, and uses a single track owned by Union Pacific Railroad. There would be three round trips a day.

But the Illinois Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration are looking at a double-track option that would allow 110 mph trains the entire route. Travel times would range from three hours and 50 minutes to four hours and 10 minutes. There would be eight round trips a day. The cost is $4.1 billion to $4.9 billion.

You may say -- "Is there a lengthy study examining the environmental impact of the double track and a list of various alternatives for the routing from Chicago to Joliet that I can peruse?"

I'm so glad you asked -- and the answer is yes! You can access the document, which actually isn't that wonky, at www.fra.dot.gov/rpd/freight/fp_Chicago_to_StLouis_HSR_Corridor.shtml.

And, if you care to opine on the project, you have until Aug. 20 to contact the state. Email contacts are listed on the link.

The report lists several alternatives for the double track. The FRA is expected to decide on a final version in December or January.

A couple things of interest locally:

There will be a suburban stop somewhere between Chicago and Joliet but the location is yet to be determined, said Kirk Brown, former IDOT secretary and now a state consultant on high-speed rail.

And second, there are two alternatives for the high-speed rail route between Chicago's Union Station and Joliet.

One route uses Canadian National tracks that also carry Metra's Heritage Corridor Line trains. This was part of the original plan, but there are some environmental issues involving endangered species like the Hines emerald dragonfly muddying the waters.

The other route uses Metra's Rock Island Line from Joliet to 40th Street in Chicago then switches over to Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks to reach Union Station.

"The Rock Island alternative offers a slightly faster trip at lower cost, but there's a lot of Metra trains on it as well," Brown said.

Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said the agency "has a vested interest in any new or increased level of service that might run on the same right of way as our trains, whether it is on the Heritage Corridor or Rock Island route. We will collaborate with IDOT to ensure that we meet the goals and objectives of high-speed rail while not deteriorating or inhibiting Metra service, and that numerous capital improvements, such as rail crossing grade separations; increased track capacity; improved signaling and switching; rail-to-rail separations; improved speeds; etc. are mutually beneficial."

What about complaints that 110 mph is piddly compared to 200 mph high-speed trains in Japan and Europe?

"IDOT is studying the potential for higher speeds," Brown said. "(110 mph) can be implemented in the short term and be a staging point for other things."

I also asked where the extra $3 billion for the double track is coming from given partisan bickering over high-speed rail in Congress and the dearth of money for any transportation projects beyond repairing what we've got.

"You don't know what the environment is going to be two years from now or three years from now," Brown said. "I don't even know what it will be six months from now.

"Folks trying to drive from St. Louis to Chicago have had their best drives -- it's not going to be better five or 10 years from now. At some point in time there will be transportation funding."

And your opinion on high-speed rail is? Email me at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Your voice

Reader Joan Rogers had two cents to share about DePaul University's rating of transit-friendly suburbs. "While I agree with the study that finds that Arlington Heights is 'transit friendly' for the most part, it does have one problem that I wish it would fix," Rogers wrote. "It needs to extend the hours of its train station.

"I live in Palatine, but get off at Arlington Heights at least once per week for Arlington Heights-related activities. I have had to wait for my ride to pick me up from the station. But if I come into Arlington Heights after 5:30 p.m., I cannot wait in the comfort of the train station because it is closed. I have had to go to the Jewel and wait in their entrance. This may not seem like a big deal in July, but in January or February, it is! And beside just getting out of the elements, you then cannot use restroom facilities, or grab a snack or cup of coffee.

"In contrast, Palatine's train station remains open until 9 p.m. The train station is comfortable, has clean restrooms, an ATM, and a Starbucks with outdoor seating. The Palatine train station is a perfect place to wait for your ride to show up with the circle drive on the north side. Granted, Palatine doesn't have as many bike racks, which is something it should work on. But on the days when I can't ride my bike, the fact that there is a climate-controlled place to wait for my ride is a huge bonus."

You should know

OK, admittedly I haven't been to every Metra station, but I will submit that Cicero takes the cake for being one of the saddest, dreariest ones around. Last week Metra broke ground on a $4.5 million rebuild of the station at 25th Place and Cicero on the BNSF Line. Work will last for 18 months and includes new platforms, a warming house, improved parking and better lighting.

Gridlock alert

Lily Lake's summer of traffic continues with IDOT embarking on the second phase of construction of a major Kane County intersection. Starting Monday, Route 47 south of Route 64 will close as IDOT crews reconstruct the intersection to add left-turn lanes in all directions. Good news is, Route 64 east of Route 47 reopens. The project is set for completion in mid-November.

Upcoming

There's still time to register for the Aug. 26 Four Star Bike Tour, a chance to explore Chicago's neighborhoods with a choice of four different routes ranging from 12 to 62 miles. The event, organized by the Active Transportation Alliance, includes a scavenger hunt, costume contest and tips from experts on safe cycling. For more info, go to www.fourstarbiketour.org/.

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