A quarter century of accomplishments
Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Rick Harnish speaks alongside former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn.

Over the last 25 years, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association has spearheaded nearly $1 billion in legislative victories advancing passenger rail, motivated tens of thousands of advocates to take action, established relationships with industry and government experts, and conducted extensive research into passenger rail policy.

The Association was founded in 1993 with fewer than 100 members. Within five years, we grew to more than 2,000 members, and we remain the nation’s largest high-speed rail advocacy organization.

One of our first legislative successes was to persuade the Illinois General Assembly to create the Intercity Passenger Rail Fund in 2005.

In 2006 we played an instrumental role in the doubling of Illinois’ annual Amtrak appropriation from $12 million to $28 million. These funds allowed the State to increase the number of daily trains between Chicago and St. Louis, Carbondale, and Quincy.

We led the grassroots Save Chicagoland Transit Campaign in 2007, generating more than 100,000 emails to Illinois legislators to protest cuts to local rail transit. That effort helped convince Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to increase funding.

In 2007, the Association supported the Illinois General Assembly’s Passenger Rail Caucus, led by Rep. Elaine Nekritz. The initial priority of the Caucus, to improve the equipment used in Amtrak service, laid the foundation for the $225 million, multi-state order for 32 new passenger locomotives in 2014. These Siemens Charger locomotives are now entering service in 2017.

In 2008, MHSRA conducted an email-based grassroots campaign to increase expectations for high-speed rail funding in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, generating more than 22,000 emails to the President and members of Congress. In 2009, President Obama allocated $8 billion for high-speed rail.

In 2009, the Illinois General Assembly passed the largest state legislative appropriation for railroads in U.S. history: $850 million for railroad infrastructure investment, including $150 million to restore service to the Quad Cities and Rockford, plus $400 million for higher-speed service from Chicago to St. Louis. We also released the first study of a new 220 mph line from Chicago to St. Louis.

In 2010, we presented a new study, “The Economic Impacts of High Speed Rail: Transforming the Midwest,” to an audience of nearly 200 county executives and board members at a meeting of the National Association of Counties. That year we also spearheaded a national coalition that successfully advocated for boosting federal appropriations for high-speed rail, convincing Congress to increase the President’s $1 billion proposal to $2.5 billion in FY2010. And, as the loudest and clearest voice for the development of a Chicago-to-St. Louis high-speed rail line, we were proud to see Illinois announce an agreement with Union Pacific to upgrade the current Amtrak route to 110 mph.

Thanks in part to our research, policy recommendations and advocacy, we reached another milestone in 2012 when Gov. Quinn signed HB4078, which allows the Illinois Tollway to use all of its existing powers to construct high-speed tracks: assemble right-of-way, do the civil engineering, issue bonds and manage the construction. The Tollway is an ideal branch of Illinois government to lead the construction of our first high-speed trunk line.

Later in 2012, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association gathered 750 comments from the public—a remarkably high response—requesting that 220 mph tracks be included in the Michigan Department of Transportation's planning process, which will have long-term consequences for passenger rail in the region.

We played a key role in raising Illinois' annual Amtrak appropriation from $28 million to $34 million in 2013, a year when most other line items were reduced. The increase was necessary as a result of the Passenger Rail and Reinvestment Act of 2008, which removed federal support for passenger rail routes less than 750 miles long, leaving states to fund them.

In 2014, our CrossRail Chicago proposal was listed as a project worthy of further study in GO TO 2040, the Chicago region’s master plan. Leading up to the final vote, we gained endorsements from the Illinois Restaurant Association and the Illinois Hotel and Motel Association. Resolutions endorsing CrossRail were passed in the Illinois House and Senate.

In 2015, Gov. Bruce Rauner threatened to cut Illinois’ Amtrak funding. We worked aggressively with Republicans in the General Assembly to prevent the cuts. As a result of our efforts, Rauner reversed course and increased Amtrak funding to $50 million in FY 2017, committed to adding service to the Quad Cities, and committed to completing the Chicago to St. Louis 110-mph project by 2017.

That year we also began working with Illinois Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie and other south side and south suburban legislators to push for better service on the Metra Electric. As a result of our initial meetings, we founded the Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric, an association of organizations pushing for investments that will allow Metra to serve a much greater market base with modern trains. Improvements to the Metra Electric line are the first steps to achieving our CrossRail Chicago proposal.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been become a strong champion for expanding and modernizing Chicago Union Station. He has successfully championed changes to a federal loan program and the creation of a state value capture program to fund it. Midwest High Speed Rail Association made key suggestions that were incorporated into the current master plan for Chicago Union Station and we are working for further improvements.

The Federal Railroad Administration and several states are updating the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative (MWRRI), a multi-state framework that was instrumental in several states gaining 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. We are engaging in the planning process to ensure that 220 mph trains, using the Phased Network Plan, are included in the updated plan.

Congress recently passed a new multi-year transportation authorization called the FAST Act. It is the first comprehensive surface transportation program to include Amtrak and other intercity passenger rail programs, which is a major step forward. The FAST Act authorized, but did not fund, two new programs: Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement and Federal-State Partnership for State of Good Repair. Both of these programs can be used to fund high-speed rail development. We are working to build grassroots support for an annual appropriation of these two programs. Midwest states have key representation on the House and Senate appropriations and autho­rizing committees. We are working to identify local champions in key congressional districts and provide local supporters with tools to communicate with their representatives and senators.

Local metropolitan planning organizations are revising their long-term transportation plans. We are working to have high-speed rail included in the updates in several key cities.

The Chicago Department of Aviation is planning an express train from O’Hare to the Loop as part of a new long-term master plan. MHSRA is promoting CrossRail Chicago, the most effective way to get express trains to O'Hare and also serve the rest of the region.

We have conducted groundbreaking impact studies on high-speed rail lines between Chicago and seven major midwestern cities. Government leaders and agencies, railroad companies and other advocacy groups and leaders in the field have used our research to make informed policy decisions on the future of Midwest passenger rail.

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