Amtrak proposes expansion to Iowa City, but state still has no funding

Advocates of expanded Amtrak rail service see new hope. (Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay)

Decades-long efforts to expand high-speed train service across Iowa appear to be sidetracked despite Amtrak’s plan to serve Iowa City. 

Amtrak’s CEO recently released a long-range plan map that included a link from the Quad-Cities to Iowa City. That is part of a Chicago-to-Omaha route, envisioned since at least 1996, that also would pass through Des Moines.

Greater Des Moines Partnership CEO Jay Byers. (Photo courtesy of the Partnership)

Business leaders and planners seeking to help an economically diverse clientele travel have argued the service is a key piece of Iowa’s transportation mix. 

Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership and a leader in the Iowa Chamber Alliance, still sees it that way. He said the Partnership continues to support the work. He considers the listing of the Iowa City link a good sign.

“We have supported this effort (to improve service across Iowa) going back many, many years,” Byers said. “We’ve known since the project has been moving forward that it will take a while to get done.”

The project has been “put on pause for a few years,” Byers added. “But now with this sort of resurrected interest in rail funding, the projects are part of the map.”

Byers called the prospects “exciting.”

“The plan always was to get to the Quad-Cities, then to Iowa City” before extending the line to Des Moines and Omaha, Byers said. “So for that extension (to Iowa City) to have life again and to keep moving forward is exciting.”

MPO chief: Rail service could bring more workers

Todd Ashby, executive director and CEO of the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the new connections could help alleviate worker shortages.

“Bringing Amtrak through Central Iowa would deepen our ties with the broader Midwest, helping to connect the talent pools of our regions and improve our collective prospects,” Ashby said. “Getting there is still of importance to this region, and we look forward to working with our partners at the state and national levels to hopefully achieve it someday.”

Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn on March 31 said President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, with $80 billion set aside for rail projects, in an opportunity to expand the struggling Amtrak system. The Quad- Cities-to-Iowa City connection was shown on the map released with the statement, but Des Moines and Omaha were left off.

A proposed Amtrak expansion includes service to Iowa City, which is unfunded. (Map courtesy of Amtrak)

“Amtrak has a bold vision to bring energy-efficient, world-class intercity rail service to up to 160 new communities across the nation, as we also invest in our fleet and stations across the U.S.,” Flynn said in a statement. “With this federal investment, Amtrak will create jobs and improve equity across cities, regions, and the entire country — and we are ready to deliver. America needs a rail network that offers frequent, reliable, sustainable and equitable train service.”

Illinois has been working on Chicago-to-Dubuque and Chicago-to-Moline links, but talks have been largely dormant in Iowa,. The state years ago failed to come up with tens of millions of dollars in matching money. 

Amtrak does not have the funding for all of the extensions it listed nationally, but rereleased plans as the Biden administration rolls out a huge infrastructure bill.

Amtrak ridership falls

Iowa currently has two Amtrak routes. The Southwest Chief includes a stop in Fort Madison. The California Zephyr crosses southern Iowa, including stops in Burlington, Mount Pleasant, Ottumwa, Osceola and Creston. 

According to Amtrak’s most recent fact sheets, 51,499 people boarded or departed a train in Iowa in 2019. That was down from 58,119 in 2018.

The trains on Iowa’s routes arrived on schedule less than half the time, Amtrak reported based on 2018 figures. The California Zephyr was on time 48.8% of the time; the Southwest Chief, 47%. Amtrak has blamed the delays on other railroads failing to give Amtrak preference on rail lines under legal agreements.

The closest station to Des Moines is in Osceola, which drew 14,026 passengers in 2019, the highest of any Iowa stop. By comparison, Des Moines Regional Transit Authority buses logged 4.4 million rides in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic. 

A top staffer in the Iowa Department of Transportation’s rail program said only high-level planning has been done on high-speed passenger rail service in Iowa. The Iowa City link is not designed. And money has not been lined up for any of the Iowa extensions, said Amanda Martin, the DOT’s freight and passenger policy coordinator.

“The introduction of intercity passenger rail between Chicago and Iowa City has been an effort led by the states of Illinois and Iowa for many years,” Martin said. “As for extending intercity passenger rail service from the Quad-Cities to Iowa City, the Iowa DOT has completed the planning portion of the effort, but as of right now there are no dedicated funds for construction and implementation of the service.”

The state has no recent projections of ridership on the proposed Chicago-to-Omaha route, Martin added. The most recent were in 2013, when an environmental impact statement projected 1.9 million riders a year. That would replace 1.4 million vehicle trips, 324,700 bus rides, and 40,900 plane bookings a year, the study found

The state in 2013 projected the Quad-Cities-to-Iowa City section would draw 300,000 passengers a year. 

Passenger rail: Saving carbon emissions?

DOT has argued the train route would help reduce carbon emissions tied to climate change. Offering trains with maximum speeds of 79 to 110 miles per hour and two to seven trips per day would help recruit businesses and residents to Iowa

Officially, the DOT has this take on its website: “The vision seeks to integrate passenger rail into the broader multimodal transportation system and promote improved mobility, economic competitiveness, community revitalization, and reduced fuel use and emissions. It is a vision where travel by train is comfortable, efficient and reliable. Implementation will use a conservative, incremental approach — increasing service over time, based on market demand, operational feasibility, and funding.”

The federal government offered Iowa and Illinois $230 million in 2010 for passenger rail projects. Illinois got $177 million for the extension to Moline. Iowa was in line for $53 million for the extension to Iowa City, but the state balked at coming up with $20.6 million in matching money. 

Now, the state knows that the line would cost far more than $53 million, but doesn’t have a current estimate. In 2013, the DOT estimated the cost would be at least $72 million.