SPRINGFIELD | Illinois crossed an important threshold Thursday in its effort to bring faster passenger rail service to the Amtrak route linking Chicago and St. Louis.
After years of work, the state and federal government signed off on the latest draft of an environmental impact statement that will help pave the way for construction of the high-speed rail corridor running through Dwight, Pontiac, Normal, Bloomington and Lincoln.
Although the project still awaits more studies and approval from the federal government, state officials were crowing about the progress.
“This historic achievement advances the crucial Chicago-St. Louis high-speed rail project while signifying that all environmental impacts and route alternatives have been analyzed to determine the best option,” Gov. Pat Quinn said in a prepared statement.
Included in the document are details outlining changes in the proposed route between Chicago and Joliet and through the center of Springfield. A dispute in the capital city over where the tracks would be located had threatened to create a bottleneck in the project.
Under the plan, the current Springfield route that runs on 3rd Street within a block of the Capitol would be switched to a rail line on 10th Street.
A revamped Chicago-Joliet route is expected to be about $500 million cheaper because it calls for fewer road crossings. And, because it has lighter freight traffic, it also could reduce travel times, said Sean O’Shea, deputy chief of staff to Quinn on transportation issues
“We’re stepping on the gas, moving the train down the track,” O’Shea said.
Upgrades to the section between Dwight and Alton, including the installation of two sets of tracks to separate passenger trains from slower freight trains, are expected to be completed as early as 2015, with the remaining sections finished by 2017.
The announcement comes just weeks after Quinn and other officials highlighted the faster rail service during a test run of an Amtrak train from Joliet to Normal. The VIP-filled train ran at speeds as high as 111 mph, up from the current speed limit of 79 mph.
Much of the project has been financed by $1.4 billion in federal stimulus money. The state has chipped in about $42 million raised by higher taxes on alcohol.
A final price tag is unclear, but some reports have put the cost at more than $4 billion.
“I was thrilled to sign this historic document, which represents thousands of hours spent by our staff and contractors researching and using environmental, scientific and engineering evidence along with public input to determine the most logical and effective routes for Chicago-St. Louis high-speed rail passenger service,” Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider said.
In addition to upgraded tracks, the project also includes new rail cars for passengers.