TH EXCLUSIVE: Study: Passenger rail from Dubuque to Rockford could cost $380 million to construct

Establishing passenger rail service from Dubuque to Rockford, Ill., could cost up to $380 million to construct and an additional $9.7 million per year to maintain, according to a new study.

The 48-page Rockford to Dubuque Passenger Rail Extension Feasibility Study, part of a larger initiative to determine the viability of the project, examined constructing passenger rail between the two cities, along with determining the potential ridership and economic impact to the area.

Chandra Ravada is the director of transportation and planning for East Central Intergovernmental Association, which assisted in conducting the study. He said the analysis shows that establishing passenger rail service from Dubuque to Rockford is economically viable, despite its estimated cost.

“We wanted to see if this would just be running a vacant train,” Ravada said. “What this shows is that it is feasible.”

Local advocates and agencies have pursued the creation of a passenger rail route from Dubuque to Chicago for years. That same service 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 new feasibility study proposes a passenger rail route that would utilize existing rail lines owned by Canadian National Railway and BNSF Railway and would start in Dubuque, pass through East Dubuque, Galena and Warren and end in Rockford, connecting then to the Rockford-to-Chicago route.

“The study assumes a two-round-trip-per-day service with trains leaving Chicago and Dubuque each morning and evening,” it states.

Overall, the study states the passenger rail route would attract a yearly ridership ranging from 97,400 to 119,000. The travel time from Dubuque to Chicago would be about four hours.

The project also would provide economic benefits, with construction creating 621 jobs and the operation of the passenger rail system creating 34 jobs.

Douglas Spyrison is a Dubuque co-chair of Ride the Rail, an advocacy group in favor of the project. He said the establishment of passenger rail in the area would have even wider economic benefits, including increases in tourism and workforce retention.

“You have to look at all of the benefits,” he said. “There is a return on investment that still hasn’t been totally quantified.”

However, the project still faces the hurdle of funding. The study states providing passenger rail would require the replacement of 88 track miles of mainline rail and 40% of existing ties on mainline track. Additionally, 10 track miles would require drainage improvements, 12 railroad bridges would need rehabilitation and an additional five bridges would need to be replaced, along with many more required improvements to the existing commercial rail line.

The study also states several stations and support facilities will need to be constructed to support the route, including primary stations in Dubuque and Galena and potential secondary stations in East Dubuque and Warren.

Overall, the project is estimated to cost from $281 million to $380 million. If passenger rail is established, operating and maintaining the Dubuque-to-Rockford route would annually cost $7.18 million to $9.71 million, with a predicted yearly revenue of $2.8 million to $3.47 million.

Ravada said finding funding for the project is more possible than it has been in years, pointing to last year’s passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which devotes $66 billion in funding to rail projects.

However, he added that actually securing that funding still will pose a significant challenge.

“You need public support, and you need to compete at a national level against every other major project in the country,” Ravada said. “That’s what happens when you are competing on a federal level for funding.”

Ravada said the project also will require the support of the State of Illinois and Illinois Department of Transportation, which so far has provided $69,000 to study the feasibility of the project.

Illinois Rep. Andrew Chesney, R-Freeport, said he believes the project likely will not move forward, given the state’s need to address and repair its existing roads and bridges infrastructure.

“We need to fix our roads, bridges and U.S. 20 and the conduits throughout Illinois before we start on a very expensive passenger rail expedition,” he said. “It will require massive state and local subsidies, and I would be very cautious of something like that at this point.”

For now, Ravada said ECIA will continue to further assess the project and its viability. The agency recently applied to the Illinois DOT for funding to conduct another study that would create a preliminary service development plan for the project.

If funded, Ravada said, that study likely would take another 18 to 24 months to complete. If the Illinois DOT continues to move forward with the project and if funding is secured, Ravada said construction likely wouldn’t begin for another five to six years.