Durbin speaks out against cuts in passenger rail service

By:  Dustin Lemmon and Ed Tibbetts
Quad-City Times

A $1.1 trillion funding measure passed by the U.S. House of Representatives over the weekend would kill $230 million for a new passenger rail line between Chicago and the Quad-Cities.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was in the Quad-Cities on Monday promising to fight for the money, as well as $10 million to build a new rail station in Moline.

The rail funding was approved by the Obama administration last October.

The new House measure, which will fund the government through Sept. 30, cuts $60 billion from current spending levels, including $6.8 billion in transportation funding. It will now go to the U.S. Senate, where it faces an uncertain future. President Barack Obama has promised to veto the legislation.

“What they have done is eliminate millions of funding that we have worked hard for,” Durbin said at a news conference at Centre Station, Moline. “Unfortunately, it was all partisan. House Republicans voted to cut funding.”

The cuts could mean the loss of more than 1,700 public- and private-sector jobs related to the project, Durbin’s office said, citing projections from Renew Moline.

Durbin and the mayors of Davenport, Moline and Rock Island, among others in attendance, urged voters to contact their House representatives and tell them to support the funding.

“We’re not giving it up without a fight,” Durbin said. “It’s important we understand these votes in Washington mean something.”

U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., who took office last month, said he supported the cuts because the government has run out of money to spend and faces a $14 trillion national debt and $200 billion in annual interest payments.

“Perhaps if former members of Congress had been more responsible, we might have that extra $200 billion a year to spend on local projects,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we have to face reality. The time for tough decisions is now.”

Asked about the issue Monday during a separate Quad-City appearance, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he doubted the rail funding was lost and the money had been obligated.

The Iowa Department of Transportation’s rail office said Monday the state and federal government had not completed the process needed to obligate the money yet. The House bill would rescind unobligated high speed and intercity rail funding, the state DOT said.

Since the federal grant was announced last fall, the rail initiative has hit rocky terrain. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has refused to back $3 million in annual state funds to help pay the operating subsidy for a Quad-City to Iowa City link. Meanwhile, an Illinois appellate court ruling has put a hold on money that state was using to match the federal funds.

Moline Mayor Don Welvaert noted the city already has invested $1.2 million to purchase the O’Rourke Building, which would be renovated for the new station.

“If (the grant is lost), it will cost the city of Moline $1.2 million,” he said. “It’s a Quad-City regional effort (to get the service). It’s not just Moline.”

Rock Island Mayor Dennis Pauley supported Welvaert’s argument by noting that the projected 750 construction jobs and another 1,000 jobs created by the new service wouldn’t just go to Moline residents.

“This is an entire Quad-City effort,” he said. “The 1,700 jobs we’re talking about, they won’t just be on the Illinois side of the river.”

Pauley argued that the connection to Chicago would help local universities and their students and bring more visitors to the Quad-Cities.

A one-hour commute by train also would give people the ability to live in the Quad-Cities and work in Chicago, Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba added.

“I’m shocked that anyone from this area would vote against this,” Gluba said. “Only a fool would vote against bringing jobs and this Amtrak funding for the Quad-City area.”

Durbin said he hopes Schilling will meet with local officials this week and explain why he agreed to cut funding for the rail service. He speculated that some House members didn’t read the bill and didn’t understand its impact.

Schilling was confident he made the right decision.

“I reviewed the pros and cons of every amendment I voted on, and I stand by my decisions,” he said in his statement. “I believe we made major strides last week towards addressing our nation’s debt problem.”

While spending cuts are necessary, some services should be protected, Durbin argued.

“There are areas where we should cut but (not) transportation, research and education,” Durbin said.