By Jim Hagerty
Rockford is now part of a nearly half-billion-dollar plan that will make passenger rail service a reality for the first time in more than 30 years, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) announced Thursday, April 10.
Beginning in 2015, a daily Rockford Amtrak train will travel to and from Chicago, making stops in Belvidere, Huntley and Elgin. It will run on Metra and Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
The train will reach Freeport and Dubuque, Iowa within the next few years. Total cost is estimated at $223 million.
“It’s important that we do this and get it done right now,” Quinn said. “It’s important for the people in Rockford to have rail to get where they have to go east of here, and for the folks in Chicago, Elgin and Huntley to get over to Rockford as quickly as possible.”
The route will use a section of the Metra line from Chicago and connect to Union Pacific near Big Timber Road in Elgin.
Until Main Street Station is built at 805 S. Main St., Rockford, a temporary station will be at 703 Seventh St., on the east side of the Rock River. Tracks will accommodate train speeds of approximately 60 mph and increase to more than 80 mph when a second train is added in 2016.
The plan replaces a deal attempted with Canadian National Railway that would have created a different route. A station would have been built in Genoa, not Belvidere. The deal was scrapped when the state, railroad and Amtrak could not come to terms.
“We had to negotiate with a different railroad,” Quinn said. “We couldn’t go along with the price that they were asking for the route. We tried to negotiate for some time. We finally reached a point where we had to switch.”
A future deal with Canadian National is expected when the route is extended to Freeport, Galena and Dubuque. That could happen as early as 2016.
The new Amtrak route is part of Quinn’s $31 billion Illinois Jobs Now! infrastructure improvement program. The six-year initiative is expected to create 439,000 construction jobs. More than $14 billion is budgeted for transportation through 2015.
In 2012, Rockford received approximately $5 million in state and federal grants to build Main Street Station. Total costs for the project could reach $12 million. Details surrounding where the city will turn for the shortfall have not been announced. However, leaders are confident the project will move forward.
“This community has a great future ahead,” Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) said. “I look forward to getting this thing built, getting the train tracks running and making Rockford a great partner for the State of Illinois for many years to come.”
The city’s strong partnership has come with resistance, especially from those who claim the Winnebago County Justice Center remains a flagship for a culture of downtown crime. Because city police are working 35 unsolved homicides and 19 are on the books at the sheriff’s office, Rockford’s seat at the table with the worst cities in America may seem fitting. A saturation of social service agencies doesn’t help and does little to improve what some believe is a spotty socioeconomic forecast. Leaders aren’t shaken, though.
A successful push to right the ship is underway, Morrissey said Wednesday during his State of the City Address. Interdepartmental efforts to fight and reduce crime, economic development incentives and significantly improved public school graduation rates are indicative of a new Rockford, one created for the next generation of leaders.
Projects like geo-policing, new Morgan Street Bridge, West State Street redevelopment and the150-room Amerock building hotel all outweigh the downtown negatives, officials say.
“I’m tired of the negativity in this community,” State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, said. “Rockford is on the verge of accomplishing some great things. This is just an example of what’s ahead. Everyone needs to realize that.
“We need to change the dialogue in this community as far as what we can do verses what we cannot do. Getting Amtrak service back on track has been a priority for me since I’ve taken office. Many people have worked to bring us where we are today. I am excited to be part of the final push to make Amtrak service a reality. For too long, the Rockford community’s needs were ignored. No longer.”
Main Street Station will be built at site of the former Illinois Central Depot, where the Amtrak Black Hawk line provided passenger service from 1974-81. The depot then sat vacant until it was demolished in 2011.
Construction will begin later this spring.