I was in a meeting recently with a consultant to the Tri-County Planning Commission which is working on a transportation project. His job is to assess and promote the potential for regional rail transportation — separate from Amtrak. He described types of rail service that might be used, and wanted to know how the various local communities might respond to rail.
Morton had rail service to Peoria 1907 — 1955 via the so-called inter-urban, a kind of glorified streetcar service. The tracks remained downtown for many years, and the old station was recently removed from the plaza site.
Ridership was reportedly substantial, and the service must have been at least as speedy as road travel at the time, connecting Morton with what was then a busy Peoria downtown. I suspect it was cheap, reliable, and efficient for its time.
The current study, which is apparently being conducted under the auspices of the Department of Transportation, envisions a system that would be regional in execution, linking a number of central Illinois points — Bloomington-Normal, Peoria, Morton, perhaps Pekin, and Washington, and others. The regional railroad, for lack of a better term (the consultant had several classifications) would provide speedy, cost-efficient travel from city center to city center — or so goes the argument.
I spent a lot of time in Europe, and lived in the U.K. I rode the trains, commuter rail systems, and the subways. They work well on the other side of the Atlantic for a variety of reasons — higher population density, higher proximity of ridership to rail service, more urban areas and shorter distances. And higher taxes that support the rail investment and operations.
Could that work here? Local area ridership for bus service between Morton and Peoria didn’t support that system, and it was terminated. Rail is attractive on many grounds: It is relatively fast and comfortable, does not require the security and restrictions of airlines, and is often much more efficient for short trips. But with the exception of the New York City, Washington, D.C., Bay Area, and Chicago rail systems, I don’t know of any that are highly successful. I’m no expert, and my knowledge is based on some personal experience plus what I read in the newspapers and see on TV news.
We are talking about mass transit in an area that doesn’t have much mass. So my question is, would central Illinois residents have enough business or personal missions in other communities to provide adequate ridership for a rail system? Would the direct city center access of rail be superior to the individual flexibility of automobile travel?
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What about funding and pay-back? The capital cost of such systems is stunning, with long development times and potential cost over-runs.
Who pays, and how? Would ridership be sufficient to meet operating expenses for the service, and if not, how is the difference financed?
Few of us have an appetite for increased taxes, so local government financing would seem a long-shot.
How about you? I’d be interested in knowing what you think, and I’ll bet the planners and consultants would also, along with your neighbors.
How about writing a letter to the editor in response, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Stephen Newhouse is a Morton Village Trustee