After 16 years of lobbying, funding, assessments and negotiations, it seems like getting passenger rail service between Moline and Chicago is no closer to reality.

That was the frustrating message Monday morning from Moline Mayor Sangeetha Rayapati, during a press conference at the Moline Police Department.

Moline Mayor Sangeetha Rayapati at a press conference Monday, Feb. 27, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“I wish I could tell my community that we have a deal,” she said, along with Illinois state Sen. Mike Halpin and state Rep. Gregg Johnson. “That all of the hard work of our public partners – from IDOT to elected officials, on the federal and state levels, have done over the years have resulted in a deal to get passenger rail to the Quad Cities.”

“The Iowa Interstate Railroad appears more interested in corporate welfare and someone else paying for their track improvements, than in being a good partner and bringing passenger rail to Moline,” Rayapati said of the company that owns railroad tracks needed for the service..

This project is even further out of reach than they expected, the mayor said.

“Because of this reality and being a leader for the city of Moline, I’m not willing to wait any longer for the railroad to do what is right,” she said. “We still believe in the benefits of passenger rail.”

Mayor Rayapati with Illinois state Sen. Mike Halpin, left, and state Rep. Gregg Johnson (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The city is on strong financial footing and they have a responsibility to not fritter away this opportunity, the mayor said.

“Our future prosperity will depend on how we find alternatives to this situation, while continuing to work toward passenger rail,” Rayapati said.

QC Rail (once headed by former Quad Cities Chamber CEO Paul Rumler) has been actively organizing supporters and advocating to state and federal legislators since forming the coalition in May 2007.  

$500 million pledged

About a half a billion dollars in federal and state funds have been pledged already for the Moline-to-Chicago rail service, state Sen. Mike Halpin said Mondsay.

“Sadly, although there was unanimity on behalf of office holders on policy and a bipartisan commitment on funds for this project, there’s always been one common denominator standing in the way of progress – and that’s been Iowa Interstate Railroad,” he said.

Mike Halpin speaking at the press conference Feb. 27, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Halpin believed the company came to the table in good faith to negotiate a deal, to upgrade its tracks at relatively low cost to itself.

“Surely, this would get the company to sign a reasonable agreement,” he said. “Real negotiations take time. Today, however, I’m not going to be silent anymore. It’s clear that Iowa Interstate is taking this opportunity  — knowing the interest of all levels of government to finish this – to try and extract as many public dollars into their private coffers as they can.

“Asking the taxpayer to rebuild their entire railroad from the ground up,” Halpin said. “They must believe we’ll pay anything, but I tell you, we will not. Too much time has passed in the lie that I believed was a good-faith bargaining process.”

An Amtrak train waits at a platform prior to its departure at Union Station Nov. 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

They’re asking Amtrak and the Surface Transportation Board to order Iowa Interstate to provide the passenger rail facilities, for reasonable compensation.

“I believe we spent enough time hoping the railroad would do the right thing,” Halpin said. “They have failed.”

Rayapati said there has been “a constant changing of the goal posts.”

Under federal law, Amtrak has the power to ask the Surface Transportation Board to order these facilities be built, Halpin said.

Moline also is researching Iowa Interstate’s record of safety on its rail lines, “so that we don’t experience in Moline what has happened in East Palestine, Ohio,” she said of the disaster…

They want to force passenger rail to become a reality and urged the public to contact their elected representatives on this issue.

Gregg Johnson speaking at the Monday press conference (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“We deserve it. We have waited well over 10 years now,” state Rep. Gregg Johnson said of passenger rail service. “It’s absolutely critical that we continue to put the pressure on and fight.”

Working with Visit Quad Cities

Rayapati wants the city to work more closely with the Quad Cities International Airport, Visit Quad Cities and applying for state grants to improve visitor impact from Chicago.

Moline Mayor Rayapati speaking at the press conference (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Chicago-to-Moline service is proposed to have two round trips per day (four passenger trains per day and other intermediate locations including La Grange, Naperville, Plano, Mendota and Princeton. A new station is proposed for Geneseo and Moline has built a multimodal facility that includes accommodations for passenger rail service.

The environmental studies to restore this service began in 2009. A Tier 1 Environmental Assessment (EA) was completed in September 2009, and a supplement to the EA was completed in August 2010. The Illinois Department of Transportation and the Iowa Department of Transportation worked jointly on the preparation of these documents and associated studies.

About a year ago, the two Illinois U.S. Senators – Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth – sent a letter to the Illinois DOT and Iowa Interstate Railroad, urging them to reach an agreement.

Without an agreement on possible track upgrades and the cost, federal funding for the project could be lost.

In the letter, the three “express our strong concerns about the lack of progress,” and refer to “years of unnecessary delays.”

Federal funding was initially secured in 2010, with passenger service to begin in 2014. Since then, state money has also been promised for the route.

Halpin said he gets questions all the time about the status of passenger rail.

“This is a huge deal and it was promised to us years ago,” Johnson said. “Everybody is trying to get this done, except for one party that is standing in the way.”

“From Visit Quad Cities’ perspectives, sometimes leaders have to lead difficult conversations, if you want to see action, and this has just been in the proverbial water cooler talk for so long,” said Dave Herrell, president/CEO of Visit Quad Cities. “I think it’s time; there’s gotta be a sense of urgency with this.”

Visit Quad Cities CEO Dave Herrell testified March 9, 2022 at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, before the Senate Tourism and Hospitality Committee.

“We’ve got the infrastructure ready to go,” he said. “We know this is something that’s going to add a lot of value and a lot of benefits on multiple levels – whether it’s economic development, tourism, whether it’s jobs, getting people to consume the Quad Cities in a meaningful way.”

Passenger has been flagged as a weakness by Visit Quad Cities in their analysis of the area, Herrell said.

“It’s been on Moline’s radar and it’s the time to act,” he said, noting Chicago is the largest market where VQC promotes out of the area for potential visitors.

“It can impact higher ed, influencing students who are thinking about coming to school at Augustana, Western, at St. Ambrose and Black Hawk,” Herrell said. “It’s got a huge upside – we want to see it happen and we’re fully aligned with the mayor; we’re fully aligned with Sen. Halpin and whatever we can do to make it work, we’re gonna do it.”