Study: Dubuque supplemental market in proposed passenger rail network

A study that charts a 40-year vision for the Midwest’s passenger rail system determined that a Dubuque line would not contribute significantly to ridership within an interstate network but could be independently developed to meet local transportation needs.

Transportation officials and citizen advocates say that even with low passenger volume, the benefits to the tri-state region are numerous, justifying the establishment of a rail link to Chicago.

“That can be ascertained from other small communities that have had benefit from passenger rail,” said David Solberg, Dubuque Metropolitan Area Transportation Study committee member. “It’s had economic impact. It’s helped communities grow and helped them retain the population.”

The study, overseen by Federal Railroad Administration, charts a vision for providing high-speed passenger rail across 12 Midwestern states. Currently, Amtrak provides passenger rail service to 11 of the 12 states, which include Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

As envisioned in the study, trains would travel at least 110 mph in a hub-and-spoke model with Chicago at the center. As a rail network, people could make seamless transfers between corridors, which traverse a region that spans 820,000 square miles.

The study forecast that at full operation, the network would serve 1,088 markets, making 17 million to 33 million trips annually by 2055.

Annual revenue of $1.5 billion to $1.9 billion would help sustain operations and maintenance costs of about the same amount, while capital costs would total $116 billion to $162 billion.

The network could be governed by an existing organization, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, which was formed by eight Midwestern states in 2000.

The study considered Dubuque a supplemental market that would serve as an offshoot along a corridor that stretches from Chicago to St. Louis. Routes that serve smaller markets like Dubuque would have to be developed independent of the overall rail network, using local or separate funding, the study concluded.

A passenger railway from Dubuque to Chicago has not run since the 1981 closure of the Black Hawk Line, operated by Amtrak.

But the Dubuque Metropolitan Area Transportation Study committee is investigating the resurrection of the route and awaits feasibility data.

The 13-month project, due for completion in the spring, will evaluate routing, estimated ridership, station locations, infrastructure and equipment conditions, service speeds and frequencies, along with associated expenditures and revenue potential.

“Any city that’s developing, it’s always better to have multiple choices,” said Chandra Ravada, transportation director for East Central Iowa Intergovernmental Association, an entity assisting the committee. “Having multiple modes of transportation is always going to accommodate multiple generations.”

The route would use existing Canadian National tracks, but trains would travel 79 mph to avoid high upgrade costs.

Between Rockford, Ill., and downtown Dubuque, the committee has opted for rail line stops in Freeport and Galena and is considering additional stops in Winnebago, Lena and Warren.