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Midwest gets a jump on high-speed rail

CHICAGO — Illinois is already investing to make way for a high-speed rail system expected to spread across the Midwest and hasten commutes between its major cities.

CHICAGO — Illinois is already investing to make way for a high-speed rail system expected to spread across the Midwest and hasten commutes between its major cities.

The projects are in preparation for the $2.6 billion President Obama promised the Midwest in January to modernize its transportation network with high-speed rail. That money is part of a larger $11 billion high-speed rail package made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

State lawmakers in the Midwest have jobs on their mind.

Last week Gov. Pat Quinn announced $133 million in federal stimulus funds to build a railroad “flyover” in Englewood, one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. It will untangle the existing Metra, Amtrak, and freight tracks there so they can connect with a future high-speed rail line.

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Federal officials said the project is expected to create 1,446 jobs.

Governor Quinn is making high-speed rail projects a component of plans to get the state – which has a with a $13 billion deficit – back into financially sound shape. Illinois is set to receive $1.2 billion in stimulus money for building the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, which Quinn says will create 6,000 Illinois jobs.

Renovation of Chicago’s Union Station

Another project getting underway to prepare for high-speed rail in Illinois is the renovation of Chicago’s Union Station, the 85-year-old historic facility located in the heart of downtown.

Last month Amtrak petitioned several architectural and real estate firms in Chicago and on the East Coast for ideas on how to redevelop the building, which serves both Metra and Amtrak rail lines. It expects to announce a winner by the end of May.

The announcement was seen as a way for Amtrak to prepare for how to deal with serving as a hub for high-speed rail across the Midwest. While it’s uncertain how the station will fit into plans, the facility needs an upgrade, especially because it is known for being overcrowded during rush hour.

“Union Station is the gateway to the city of Chicago,” says Kevin Brubaker, deputy director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which has been promoting high-speed rail for several years. “This is the time for us to carefully study its pros and cons.”

Mr. Brubaker says that whatever facility is used as the central hub to the Midwest’s high-speed rail system, it will probably serve 5 million people a day.

“This is the time for us to open up the process to get these ideas on the table for where and how the station that is going to have 5 million people in and out of it, can do it most effectively and do it right,” he says.

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Just the beginning?

The high-speed rail lines promised for the Midwest include five corridors: Chicago to St. Louis, Chicago to Milwaukee, Milwaukee to Madison, Chicago to Pontiac, Mich., and Cincinnati to Cleveland.

Because high-speed rail is considered more efficient and involves minimal pollution, environmental groups hope the initial start-up investment leads to continued investment by the federal government and everyone else, so that progress on high-speed rail doesn’t stall.

“This is the first time since Abraham Lincoln was president that we have presidential leadership on passenger rail development,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.