Supporters say Dubuque-to-Chicago passenger rail closer to reality than ever

Proponents of reestablishing passenger rail access from Dubuque to Chicago believe it could be closer to reality than ever before.

Dubuque City Council members this week received a letter submitted by Ride the Rail, a citizen advocacy group that supports establishing such a passenger rail service, that called on local public servants, companies and organizations to express their support for the funding and construction of Amtrak service from Dubuque to Rockford, Ill. From there, trains would connect with a track linking Rockford to Chicago.

Douglas Spyrison, Dubuque co-chair of Ride the Rail, said passage of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the recent completion of a feasibility study examining the establishment of a Rockford-to-Dubuque route have greatly increased the chances the project could securing funding.

“Things are looking very good lately, and we want to develop a group of supporters for this project,” Spyrison said. “We’re at a point where we need to show our state governments how much support there is for this.”

Passenger rail service from Dubuque to Chicago was available from 1974 to 1981 before being discontinued. In 2019, Illinois lawmakers agreed to provide $275 million to start offering passenger rail service from Chicago to Rockford. That route is anticipated to begin in 2025.

The feasibility study examining the cost and viability of a route from Dubuque to Rockford, conducted by Dubuque Metropolitan Area Transportation Study, has not yet been released to the public. However, it does indicate that the route would be financially feasible, said Chandra Ravada, director of transportation and planning for East Central Intergovernmental Association, which manages DMATS.

Ravada said the study still is being reviewed by the Illinois Department of Transportation before being officially released.

“Right now, we are estimating the number of passengers (on the Dubuque-to-Rockford route) would be 100,000 annually,” he said. “It will help with transportation for jobs, for tourism and for people who travel to and from the Chicago area during the winter time.”

The study also included an updated cost to establish the route. Ravada declined to provide that information, however, saying it could not be disclosed until the full report is released to the public, which he anticipates will be in mid-April.

Ravada said DMATS already has begun the next steps of seeking Illinois Department of Transportation approval for the project. Last week, DMATS applied for state funding to conduct an environmental impact assessment, which is required under the National Environmental Policy Act. If funding for the assessment is approved, a consultant for the assessment could be hired by the end of the year.

Ravada said he agrees that bringing Amtrak service from Rockford to Dubuque is more likely following last year’s passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which devotes $66 billion in funding to rail projects.

“This is one of the better times to make this happen,” he said. “There are now funding sources that could make this happen, but we also need to get the information to apply for that funding.”

Despite the excitement of the project’s advocates, it would take some time before people could board a train from Dubuque to Chicago if the project comes to fruition. The project requires additional state review and approval, and it also would need to secure federal infrastructure funding.

Even if the Illinois DOT approves all the required planning and the project is funded, Ravada said construction on the route likely wouldn’t begin for another five to six years.

For Spyrison, though, the recent developments are a promising sign, and he urged local leaders to offer their support for the initiative.

City Council Member Ric Jones said he fully agrees with creating passenger rail service from Dubuque to Rockford, but that at the moment, all cities can do is offer their support.

“It’s the best time we are going to have to get passenger rail back to Dubuque,” he said. “It could move thousands of people every day.”