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Direct passenger rail route to Chicago denied; Peorians told to ride the bus

Right about the time I stopped blogging last year, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) released its “Feasibility Report of Proposed Amtrak Service” between Chicago and Peoria. So I’m five months late with my analysis. But then, IDOT was about three years late releasing the study.

All you need to read to know that this feasibility report is a sham is this paragraph from the introduction:

With the successful application by the State of Illinois for federal stimulus funding to upgrade the Chicago-St. Louis corridor (hereinafter referred to as “corridor”) to a maximum speed of 110 mph, the study request was modified to one route that would provide the Peoria area with connectivity to certain Amtrak corridor trains. After an initial review of the various routes, it became apparent that instead of a complete route feasibility study between Chicago and Peoria, either a rail or bus shuttle between the Peoria area and Normal, Illinois, utilizing the new multi-modal station currently under construction at Normal, would be the most expedient way to meet the State’s goal. A decision was made by IDOT that no through-train frequencies between Peoria and Chicago were to be considered.

And there you have it. The feasibility study — first requested in March 2007 — was aborted before it ever began.

You see, the original request to study direct service between Peoria and Chicago. There was no request for this to be a high-speed train or to connect to a high-speed corridor. But then the request was inexplicably modified. Instead of simply looking at direct service, the request was changed to look at service that would connect with the new “high speed” corridor between Chicago and St. Louis that passes through Normal.

Well, that screwed up everything. Now the only routes they can consider are the shortest routes to the “high speed” corridor, and how to get the train up to 110 mph once it gets there. Based on this new criteria, IDOT decided they weren’t even going to consider direct service to Chicago from the State’s third-largest metropolitan statistical area.

Instead, they spent four and a half years researching the best rail and bus routes from here to Normal. It doesn’t take a member of Mensa to figure out that rail service between Peoria and Normal is idiotic. But they did the math anyway and determined that it would cost $134 million in infrastructure and capital costs, plus an operating subsidy of $2,211,000 per year. Bus service? No infrastructure or capital costs, and an annual operating subsidy of $273,000.

So, thanks to a mysteriously modified request, we have a “feasibility report” that says, “drive to Normal if you want to go to Chicago.” In other words: status quo. No rail service for you.

The first question I want answered is, who modified the request? Was it IDOT? The Tri-County Regional Planning Commission? Ray LaHood? Who? And my next question is, of course, why?

Why was a study of a direct route to Chicago aborted? Included at the end of the report (starting on page 19) is what I can only assume is their “initial review of various routes.” And “Route B” looks very attractive, and feasible. It would travel south from Chicago through Joliet and Pontiac to Chenoa, then head west to East Peoria over the Toledo, Peoria and Western Railroad (TP&W), which they say has “relatively light” traffic — only three trains a day on average.

Furthermore, the cost to upgrade the TP&W infrastructure so that passenger trains could travel at 79 mph (not “high speed”) is only $52 million — less than half the $106 million they estimate it would cost to improve the tracks between Peoria and Normal to the same speed. Heck, even if they upgraded Route B to 110 mph (“high speed”), it would still cost $6 million less than upgrading tracks between Peoria and Normal to 79 mph speeds. And since Route B would be a through-train from Peoria all the way to Chicago, it would have higher ridership and thus higher revenue, which would reduce its annual operating subsidy.

But IDOT didn’t consider this option because, apparently, it wasn’t “the most expedient way to meet the State’s goal.” Why wasn’t it?

Who spiked the IDOT-Amtrak feasibility study and why? That’s the question that demands an answer.

12 comments to Direct passenger rail route to Chicago denied; Peorians told to ride the bus

  • Good question, C.J., but while I am not sure who pulled the plug, it looks to me the issue was ridership, not politics.

    Ardis was in favor of it. Supposedly the state was at least examining it. But based on the previous ridership numbers, I would have thought a lot more promotion would be needed to get people back on that train.

    If you are looking for a nefarious connection of some sort, it occurs to me the owners of the Bloomington Coliseum, for one, stand to profit immensely with the Peoria Civic Center out of the loop and their facility in. They have been steadily eroding our ability to draw name acts to Peoria.

    I wonder who else in the Bloomington Normal area benefits from Peoria being off the rail line?

    Just saying.

  • vonster

    How are we going to help Bill?

  • Mahkno

    State Farm > Caterpillar.

  • Mahkno

    And… Peorians have shown their disdane for all things New Urbanist by our profound inability to support the Heart of Peoria plan. Peoria prefers to drive everywhere.

  • Sterling

    Why has it always been a direct connection or bust? Why isn’t a potential branch line connecting Peoria and Normal a more viable option?

    “It doesn’t take a member of Mensa” to realize that ridership will be higher and more effective with service paralleling I-74, which serves 25,000+ vehicles daily between Normal and Peoria, than one paralleling IL 29 (7300 vehicles daily north of Chilli), IL 116 (4600 vehicles daily east of Metamora), or US 24 (4500 vehicles daily east of Eureka). In other words, even if every vehicle traveling on IL 29, IL 116, AND US 24 were traveling between Peoria and Chicago, I-74 still carries over 9000 more trips daily between Normal and Peoria. (These traffic stats are from IDOT’s website, by the way.)

    The Route B option CJ is so fond of that will have “higher ridership and thus higher revenue” was the same route used by Amtrak’s Prairie Marksman, which operated in the early 80s between Chicago and East Peoria via Joliet and Chenoa, using the TP&W tracks to East Peoria. As far as the higher ridership because of the direct connection… according to the feasibility report, service was canceled just 14 months after it began due to the 30 (30!) daily riders.

    Just like how Peoria has sunk from Illinois’s second city to eighth in population, the metro area is lagging behind: Rockford is right on our heels (the Rockford-Freeport-Rochelle combined statistical area is already higher than our Peoria-Canton CSA) and Bloomington-Normal is booming. The Tri-County area has stagnated and lost population since 1980 (365,864 in 1980 vs. 360,552 in 2010) whereas McLean County has seen booming growth in the same time period (119,149 in 1980 to 169,572 in 2010). If the 365,000 Tri-County residents in 1980 combined to 30 passengers daily, why would our 360,000 residents today make a direct connection so successful?

    I’m all for Peoria getting a train again, but let’s be realistic. Just like the Interstate system, any connection to Chicago is going to go through the Twin Cities.

  • Hindenburg

    Peoria area residents have no reason to travel to Bloomington/Normal. Compared to Bloomington/Normal, the restaurants, the shopping, and the medical care will always be superior in the Peoria area. There is no “Peoria Heights” style restaurant anywhere in McClean county. If someone in McClean county needs an advanced medical procedure, he or she travels to Peoria. The selection at big box stores in McClean county is not as good compared to those in Peoria.

    Despite the “booming” area of McClean county, State Farmers like to spend their fat paychecks on crappy chain restaurants, fast food, and sleazy college bars. Biaggis is the only exception. Even then, the residents complain that it is too expensive compared it to the Olive Garden. Spend some time in the Bloomington/Normal area with the residents if you do not believe me.

    Sorry, this post was not intended to bash the Bloomington/Normal area. I tire of reading arguments stating that since Bloomington/Normal is booming, that the increasingly wealthy residents must automatically spend their money on fine dining and culture. Regrettably, they do not. The white collar job holders maintain blue collar tastes. Therefore, I resent being told that I would have to travel there by train from Peoria in order to get to Chicago or St. Louis.

    Why not endorse “the Route B option CJ is so fond of.” We can spend millions of taxpayer dollars to tear up existing rail lines and convert them into bike paths. And then we need to spend money every year to maintain the asphalt paths that run for miles through the endless cornfields. How many people per year use the Rock Island bike path. 30 maybe?

    How many country roads would need to be shut down if the counties were to take an annual traffic count of all drivers. Are counties ready to shut down the roads in depopulated rural areas? Hardly. Therefore, the “nobody will ride the train if the rail line were built” argument does not make sense.

    A direct high-speed rail link from Peoria to Chicago would happen if CAT were to push for it.

  • Anon E. Mouse

    ISU > Bradley
    Right there is a bunch of your ridership.

  • Bob

    So the reason not to use plan B is because of a traffic comparison between a highway and an interstate? That’s not a fair comparison. The true potential ridership would be all traffic from Peoria to Chicago no matter the route(highway and interstate) or mode of transportation.

  • Hindenburg

    Read how much it costs to build and maintain rural county roads that are rarely used.

    I would wager that one mile of railroad track is cheaper to maintain than one mile of paved road. Regarding rail service to Normal and to Chicago, I think that we can afford both routes.

  • Sterling

    @ Hindenburg –
    The state performs traffic counts on most county and some township roads in each county statewide on a rolling five year basis. The website is where you can access those traffic counts.

    @ Bob –
    If there’s a primary route between Peoria and Chicago that doesn’t use IL 29 through Chillicothe, IL 116 through Metamora, US 24 through Eureka or I-74 through Bloomington-Normal, I haven’t heard of it and I doubt it carries that much Peoria-Chicago traffic. We could also consider flights from Peoria to Chicago, but we’d also have to filter out people who connected to a different flight at O’Hare — an Amtrak connection to Union Station wouldn’t help someone flying through Chicago to Denver or Los Angeles or wherever. I’m not sure about Peoria Charter Coach’s ridership between Chicago and Peoria… but their bus routes also go through Normal and pick up/drop off passengers there. In other words, if demand with PCC’s service is high enough to warrant rail service, those numbers would be based on a route via Normal anyway.

    The better reason not to use Plan B is that we used Plan B back in the 80s and it ended up getting shut down because not enough people used it — 30 people a day. In the meantime, we have established, sustaining bus service already provided by the private sector connecting Chicago and Peoria via Normal. If we’re going to dump millions of dollars into a rail connection to Peoria, it’d probably be a better investment to go with the route that has proven ridership rather than the one that has already been shut down due to low ridership.

  • David P. Jordan


    The Plan B route used by the Prairie Marksman is superior for through train service between Peoria and Chicago. That route failed in 1980-1981 because it was a 14-month experiment to demonstrate that rail passenger service WASN’T viable.

    The State of Illinois got what it wanted out of it.

    A single daily roundtrip (there needs to be two), bad publicity in the local print media and recent memories of slow service on the Rock Island doomed the experiment. But it could have succeeded if the State of Illinois was serious, and it can do so today. Unfortunately, the dopey “shuttle train” concept shows they’re not serious.

  • Hindenburg

    I would wager that since the State collects taxes from every gallon of gas sold, Illinois will not risk curtailing its revenue stream just so people could ride the train instead of driving.

    I agree with David and C.J. There is something wrong when State officials sabotage passenger rail studies.