As a warning, this post will mostly be of interest only to those who live in Springfield, Illinois or have a particular interest in high speed rail in the state.
The following are my comments to IDOT regarding the Springfield section of the draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Chicago to St. Louis High Speed Rail corridor.
Springfield has had an auto-centric discussion of the high speed rail issue. Much attention has been focused on how rail interrupts auto-traffic while there has been very little discussion of what location is the most suitable for passenger rail combined with a multi-modal facility.
Decreasing use of oil is a vital national interest for both economic and environmental reasons. Good passenger rail can also be an effective tool for slowing sprawl and bringing more people to the city center. For that reason, it's important that Springfield pick a location that will increase rather than decrease use of mass transit.
The studies conducted so far warn of a bottleneck if rail traffic is consolidated on the 10th street corridor. Delays caused by freight traffic are perhaps the most common and annoying inconvenience of riding Amtrak. So, it's extremely encouraging that every Amtrak ride I've taken from Springfield to Chicago has been on time or early since track improvements along the corridor have been completed. Reliable, on-time service will result in more ridership.
IDOT should fully consider the implications of consolidation making Springfield a bottleneck that could routinely throw passenger rail off schedule for the St. Louis to Chicago line.
Additionally, there are many local issues to consider. The location for a 10th street corridor passenger multi-modal center proposed by county and city officials is currently a community hub for important non-profit groups, local government offices, and social service agencies. The surrounding blocks include:
Salvation Army rehabilitation center, shelter and thrift store
Triangle counseling and rehabilitation center
Catholic Charities crisis center and food pantry
Contact Ministries shelter and other services
Urban League building
Springfield Housing Authority building
The County jail and courthouse is also nearby.
The area leaves little room for commercial or residential development. Proponents of the 10th street location suggest that it would spur economic development in the surrounding area. That's an unrealistic goal unless social service agencies are forced out of the neighborhood. No county or city leader has disclosed the costs of doing so or plans for where the agencies would be compelled to relocate. It's doubtful whether all of the cash-strapped non-profits would be able to remain downtown in close proximity to each other, and the citizens they serve, if forced to move.
The alternative is to leave most of these valued social service agencies where they are. Some would be forced out to make room for the multi-modal facility, such as Salvation Army and Planned Parenthood. It's difficult to understand why the city council would approve $1.8 million in TIF funds for the Salvation Army site if they're serious about using the location for a multi-modal center. Those funds would be wasted.
Good multi-modal centers should be located where people feel comfortable walking at night and leaving their car for the weekend.
I'm glad we have these service agencies in Springfield. But, imagine what sort of welcome a 10th street facility would make to those visiting the city. Nothing says "welcome to Springfield!" like asking visitors trying to reach their hotel or tourist site to run a gauntlet of people going to and from a shelter, rehab center or the county jail. Is that really the best way to encourage visitors to travel by train? The location could only discourage tourists and business travelers from using mass transit. It's also less convenient for professionals and citizen lobbyists who visit the Capitol complex during legislative sessions.
It's difficult to imagine a location in Springfield less suitable for a passenger rail station than the proposed 10th street corridor.
Let's compare the 10th street location to the 3rd street corridor where the Amtrak station is currently located. Springfield recently spent $571,500 in TIF funds upgrading the station. Across the street to the South is a vital part of any multi-modal facility: a municipal parking garage.
The station shares the block with a parking lot. Across the street to the north is another parking lot and a building which appears to be unused. Much of the infrastructure needed for a multi-modal facility, plus room to expand, already exists at the 3rd street location.
The block east of the current Amtrak station includes commercial, retail and residential space currently advertised for lease. Much of the downtown business district is within three short blocks. All of these locations would benefit from the increased foot traffic that comes with a good public transit center. It could become a focal point of downtown revitalization. That however, would require city leaders to view passenger rail as an advantage, rather than merely an inconvenience that slows the speed at which cars race away from downtown.
Passenger rail service should be located in an area convenient to foot traffic and where it strengthens businesses in the city center, as Bloomington/Normal and Champaign/Urbana have done. By both measures, the existing Amtrak station is a far superior location.
The businesses which might be most inconvenienced by a multi-modal facility on 3rd are a luxury car dealership across the tracks and the private Sangamo Club. I suppose the owners and clientele of those businesses have more clout than those who use the social service agencies. Perhaps that has been a driving factor behind public discussion of this decision. The fact that those most in need in the community are also the most likely to have services dislocated by 10th Street consolidation is a serious social/environmental justice issue.
At every point in the public process, local leaders have avoided discussion of which location is more suitable for passenger rail and have instead focused on the inconveniences posed by the inevitable increase in freight traffic resulting from the new Joliet rail terminal.
I submitted a comment to the previous Springfield corridor study (conducted by Hanson Engineering and a community panel) suggesting that the potential economic growth benefits for the area surrounding 3rd be examined. The question was ignored. Instead, the study limited its conclusions to the claim that leaving 3rd street rail in place would prevent expansion in the medical district. Since then, Memorial began construction an expansion in the medical district with a new building near the tracks. Personally, I felt one of the best benefits of living in the medical district was being in walking distance of the Amtrak station.
That previous study was flawed because it did not consider the most appealing location for passenger rail. Springfield leaders have failed to discuss how improved mass transit at the present location would attract new residents and increase property values in the nearby medical district and downtown. Additionally, the manner in which most informational meetings were conducted, where individuals had to ask questions to staff one-on-one, did not include a public comment component that might have exposed residents to issues and concerns outside what has been voiced by local officials. Further, the citizen advisory groups did not include representatives from organizations which specifically advocate for improved passenger rail and mass transit service.
Springfield could have spent the past two years discussing the best way to accommodate increased rail traffic on the 3rd street corridor. Instead, residents have been presented a worst case scenario with misleading post card images, unsupported horror stories about the Dana Thomas house crumbling apart, and a steady drumbeat of hyperbole. We have been told a multi-modal facility would bring economic development to the area surrounding 10th street, but mysteriously, the same facility would bring economic ruin if located on 3rd. I'm afraid that many comments received by IDOT will likely be based on misconceptions spread by a fear campaign, rather than an objective, informed analysis. I hope that IDOT will not allow itself to be bullied by city and county officials who refuse to consider anything other than their initial proposal.
I can only speculate as to why some city leaders are insistent on a poor location for passenger rail. The location was discussed decades ago when there was still a public housing complex near the 10th street corridor. Some people still hold to the outdated notion that mass transit should primarily be used by those who have no other option due to poverty or disability, such as many of those utilizing the social service facilities along 10th. A 10th street multi-modal facility makes perfect sense if one makes decisions based on those obsolete assumptions.
In contrast, successful mass transit will appeal to everyone, including those who have the option of driving.
I hope IDOT will be of service to the residents of Springfield by fully exploring these unexamined issues.