After an intense budget debate in the Iowa Legislature that came within hours of shutting down the state government on June 30, the budget bill has been passed, and passenger rail survived this round.
Although Republicans in Iowa's House of Representatives sought to eliminate all passenger rail funding, the Iowa State Senate voted to retain the $5 million appropriated in the two previous year's budgets for the state's portion of the Chicago-Iowa City route, nicknamed the “Green Line.” Despite the fact that passenger rail did not receive any new funds, rail advocates see the budget vote as a sign that the proposed route from Iowa City to the Quad Cities is still alive. The decision to move forward on the project is now back in the hands of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad.
“The legislative budget for FY 2012 for passenger rail ($6.5 million) was deappropriated and the FY 2013 appropriations did not include any multi-modal funding, including passenger rail,” explained Tammy Nicholson of the Iowa DOT’s Office of Rail Transportation. “The previous passenger rail funds from FY 2010 and FY 2011 were not deappropriated, so that leaves the DOT the use of the previous $5 million for passenger rail.”
The FY 2010 budget included $3 million in funding, and FY 2011 included $2 million. The Iowa DOT spent $500,000 so far, for environmental studies, preliminary engineering and FRA application preparations, leaving $4.5 million still available for passenger rail.
“The intent language that was passed in FY 2011, that the legislature intends to provide up to $20 million over four years to help fund Iowa's match for federal funding, remained,” she continued. Iowa would need these matching funds to be eligible to receive the federal grant of $230 million awarded to the project in October 2010.
The budget bill also ended Iowa's membership in the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission (MIPRC), a coalition of state leaders from across the region advocating passenger rail improvements.
“We are reviewing the legislative appropriations and assessing the impact on the project and our ability to move forward,” Nicholson added. “This will involve discussion with our partners, the Governor's office and the FRA.”
Iowa State Senators Fight for Passenger Rail
“We owe a lot of thanks to the Iowa Senate, which continued to include passenger rail funding in their budget,” said Paul Rumler, Senior Vice President of Community Development, Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce. “The Senators, especially Dvorsky, Beall and McCoy, continued to fight for passenger rail.”
“We salvaged the $5 million already appropriated but the House insisted on deappropriating 2012 funding and withdrawing from the MIPRC in the standings bill,” noted Iowa State Senator Daryl Beall, a proponent of passenger rail. “I did not realize how deep the opposition to passenger rail is among House Republicans and the Governor.”
“Our work is cut out for us to convince the Governor and House Republicans that a $20 million down payment to pull down $230 million in federal funds is a good investment for Iowa and Iowans,” Beall added. “It likely will be more as Florida and Wisconsin say 'no thanks'.”
Iowa State Senator Bob Dvorsky called the passenger rail language in the budget bill “a compromise,” noting that the available funds “should allow the DOT to continue the passenger rail process.”
“It will also require passenger rail supporters to 'Ramp Up' their support and convince more Iowa House members to support passenger rail,” Dvorsky said. “I believe that the Governor will remain 'neutral' in this effort.”
The Governor has 30 days to sign the legislation and approve budget.
“Gov. Branstad continues to review the issue of high-speed rail in Iowa,” stated Jimmy Centers, Deputy Communications Director for Branstad. “Gov. Branstad recently met with the Chairman of Amtrak, Mr. Tom Carper, and continues to meet with Iowa DOT officials about the rail route. At this time, no decision has been made.”
Although there is uncertainty regarding the fate of Iowa's rail project, rail advocates can still gain comfort from the fact that Illinois is already moving ahead on the Chicago-to-Quad Cities segment of the rail line.
“The Chicago-Quad Cities service is not impacted by Iowa's debate for extended service along the corridor to Iowa City,” Rumler concluded. “Quad Cities passenger rail is still on schedule to begin by 2015.”