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On Nov. 4, Erin Aleman, Executive Director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, led a discussion about the future of high-speed rail in the Midwest and its possible impact on Chicago and the region. 

The proposed system could be centered on O’Hare International Airport, with fast train service to downtown and beyond, linking Chicago and other parts of the Midwest. That would reduce the reliance on expensive, inefficient puddle-jumper air service.

The needed investment — untold billions — would require a massive federal commitment as well as significant coordination by local, state and regional government agencies.

What might the system look like? Envision regularly scheduled passenger rail service moving at twice the speed of driving that connects the Chicago area with Minneapolis, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Peoria and elsewhere.

“It’s a dramatic reduction in the cost of travel, so it makes it possible for us to go visit each other or have people come visit much more often. And that’s when things happen, either more productive business meetings or stronger social ties or the ability to get better educational opportunities.”

    -Rick Harnish, Executive Director, High Speed Rail Alliance

More on the benefits:

“It really makes the region a much more attractive place to live and do business, which means we will be able to compete better. We’re not competing Chicago to Paris, we’re competing Midwest to France. If we can bring everybody together it makes it much easier for us to be an attractive place to attract business.”

– John Buck, Chairman and CEO, The John Buck Company

“The city of Peoria can certainly benefit by having passenger rail for economic reasons, but also for social equity reasons. Equity is about fairness and expanding opportunities to include those who have often been left out…People could actually go to work in Chicago, go to work in St. Louis, and come back the same day.”

– Rita Ali, Mayor, Peoria, IL

“We did a study about 10 years ago that suggested this would increase our business sales in the Chicago metro region by about $16 billion a year.”

– Rick Harnish, Executive Director, High Speed Rail Alliance

How realistic is the plan? Aleman said the scale of investment in right-of-way, rail, crash-prevention technology and trains is “not insignificant.” It’s a complex infrastructure endeavor. Regional rail proposals in the West have been budgeted at $20 billion to $45 billion or more.

Aleman and Harnish said they see more interest from government officials. The Federal Railroad Administration released a framework that proposes building high-speed rail in the Midwest. Springfield this year created the Illinois High-Speed Railway Commission.

“We need to decide what we’re going to do. We need to have a big discussion…. We need a better, more coordinated plan for the future.”

– Rick Harnish, Executive Director, High Speed Rail Alliance

Backers of high-speed rail need to get the region’s governors on board.

“This is really a lot about politics because it’s going to take federal dollars to make this happen. We should expand our regional approach to all of these states to see how we might work because everybody’s better off. Everybody has congestion, even Cleveland and Detroit. So the more we can get people from cars to trains, the better the climate is, the easier it is for everybody to travel.”

– John Buck, Chairman and CEO, The John Buck Company

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