Even at mid-speed, rail improvements can crank up Illinois' economy - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Even at mid-speed, rail improvements can crank up Illinois' economy

This op-ed by MPC President MarySue Barrett appeared in Crain's Chicago Business May 3, 2010.

As Illinois and neighboring states explore how a high-speed rail network could transform the Midwest, the Chicago area stands to gain employment and attract new economic development. The question is, how much?

Here's a sign we're on the right track: A new study predicts nearly $630 million in tourism-related spending alone tied to the $1.2 billion in federal funds slated to speed up trains between Chicago and St. Louis to 110 mph from 79 mph.

President Barack Obama's stimulus plan directed that funding to Illinois — plus more for surrounding states — to develop what's been dubbed "mid-speed rail" by high-speed rail advocates, who ultimately want 220-mph service.

The Metropolitan Planning Council analyzed the tourism-related benefits of 110-mph train service between Chicago and St. Louis and determined that 80,000 new tourists will visit Chicago each year, yielding nearly $630 million within 10 years.

Here's what that means: Over 10 years, 800,000 new tourists will spend $320 million. That $320 million will generate an additional $190 million in indirect spending. And state and local tax revenues will increase by $120 million.

This economic boost is nothing to scoff at, but it's really just gravy on top of job creation: At 63rd and State streets on Chicago's South Side, construction of a new railroad overpass, which received $133 million of the $1.2-billion investment, will generate more than 1,000 jobs; and increased tourism will create 4,200 jobs and $2.6 billion in wages, according to the planning council's study.

We'll also breathe easier. Some travelers will shift to trains from airplanes, buses and cars, reducing gas consumption by 9.3 million barrels and curbing emissions to save 0.12 million metric tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere over 10 years — the equivalent of eliminating more than 500,000 automobile round-trips between Chicago and St. Louis.

The potential economic gain is even greater than our study shows; it excludes factors such as new hotels built to serve additional tourists, or new downtown office buildings, stores and restaurants near the West Loop Transportation Center that will be the Chicago hub for fast trains. And while this study focused on Chicago, other nearby cities — notably Gary, Ind., and Joliet, which would be major stations for mid-speed and ultimately high-speed trains — also will benefit, particularly if connections to regional assets such as Gary International Airport and Joliet's intermodal center are maximized.

Governments at every level are in fiscal crises. As Congress considers an energy bill and looks ahead to a new surface transportation package in 2011, we need more investments, like mid-speed rail, that not only expand travel options but generate jobs and make the U.S. more energy-efficient.

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