Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

St. Louis-Chicago Supertrain on Track, but It May Be Late Departure Delayed by Lack of Money, Planners Say

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

St. Louis-Chicago Supertrain on Track, but It May Be Late Departure Delayed by Lack of Money, Planners Say

Article excerpt

The trains won't go as fast as once envisioned, and the departure date has been pushed into the next century. But officials insist Illinois' ambitious Chicago-to-St. Louis high-speed rail project is still on track.

For years, the concept has been a popular one with politicians and the public: Create a high-speed rail "corridor" on existing tracks between St. Louis and Chicago, allowing travelers to cut the six-hour drive to three-and-a-half hours. Tickets would be priced competitively with flying, while easing highway congestion and pollution.

Based loosely on the "bullet trains" of Europe and the high-speed locomotives of the East Coast, Illinois' rail plan remains among the most ambitious in the nation. But four years and $16 million after its start, the project still exists mostly on paper, and it's projected completion date remains open-ended.

The reason, officials say, is money. Unlike Florida, which is spending tens of millions in state dollars every year to bring its high-speed rail project in on a deadline, Illinois is relying on whatever federal grants and future private investors it can find along the way.

"We don't have that kind of money; Illinois' priorities are different," said Pete Pointner of Planning Resources Inc., one of the companies under contract to get the Illinois project out of the station. "Illinois' approach to high-speed rail is an incremental approach."

Taking federal money means following federal regulations, like the environmental impact study the state is now compiling. And how long it will take to get private investors to front the $300 million or more still needed is anyone's guess.

"No one's beating down the door (to invest) yet ... but this has been shown to be financially feasible," said Pointner. "They need to look at the hard, cold dollars and cents of the thing."

Meanwhile, some communities along the proposed route have expressed concern about plans to close many grade-level crossings as part of the project, making it less convenient to get around in some towns.

State officials have been meeting with those communities during the last two weeks, gathering input for the environmental impact statement they expect to issue by late 1997.

"You have to assess the impact it has on communities," said Illinois Transportation spokeswoman Martha Schiebel. "We want to make sure the communities affected have a say."

For some of those communities, though, the project is still just a distant idea, and not necessarily a threatening one.

"It's not something everybody's talking about in the grocery story and beauty shops," said Alton mayor Robert Towse, whose town sits along the proposed route. "We're certainly not against high-speed rail ... but it may be 20 years before we see a high-speed train running between St. Louis and Chicago. …

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