High speed rail projects in Illinois, California clear hurdles

As part of the stimulus bill, many states applied for funds through a new program designed to support the growth of high speed rail in the US. Many of those applications were submitted prior to the 2010 election which saw a significant shift in governorships in favor of Republican led administrations, several of which returned that money and said no to high speed rail in their states. Since then, fewer projects are going forward, but not necessarily in places people would expect.

After a wave of rejection following the 2010 election, it seemed like most of the rail work in the US would be confined to the Northeast corridor, which is known for its extensive municipal and inter-state rail systems. Many of those systems like the 108 year old New York Subway, readily applied for funding to make much needed upgrades – work that is only expected to kick in to higher gear following Sandy. But, that work may have a chilling effect on the progress of high speed rail in the area given the level of damage sustained and the need for existing service restoration over modernization.

CivSource reported earlier this year on a new study underway in Texas to connect parts of the state with Oklahoma. That project is only in the study phase, but some local observers are hopeful that the busy corridor between both states may see additional service options.

Two states, however, have been making it significant process on establishing high speed rail lines despite much controversy. In Illinois, a large project designed to connect the Chicagoland area with St. Louis, Missouri cleared an important environmental feasibility standard at the end of last week. The environmental impact plan offered up by rail officials received both state and federal approval, clearing the way for track construction. The Amtrak trains being considered for the project can run over 100 miles per hour, shaving significant time off of commutes between the two cities.

The state released its initial plan last year, and was required under federal law to submit an environmental impact statement for all phases of the project. The statements on each phase have been approved. Phase one track sections are expected to be complete by 2015, with the latter phases coming online by 2017. Illinois has received more than $1.4 billion in federal funding to develop high-speed service between Chicago and St. Louis, and the project is expected to create over 6,200 jobs.

“This historic achievement advances the crucial Chicago-St. Louis high-speed rail project while signifying that all environmental impacts and route alternatives have been analyzed to determine the best option,” Governor Quinn said.

California is also working on a project to expand high speed rail in its state and potentially connect disparate local transportation systems in some of its city centers. The $68 billion plan would connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, but has met with stiff opposition from residents between the two cities concerned that rail tracks will now run through their farmlands. Farmers in the area filed a claim in court to stop the track from coming through their land, but a judge ruled on Friday in favor of the state project.

The 800 mile project is one of the most ambitious public works projects undertaken by the state and already had federal approval, it is now likely to move ahead despite continued opposition from local groups.