Federal budget deal spares Q-C rail money

By:  Ed Tibbets
Quad-City Times

A budget deal that averted a government shutdown left untouched $230 million in federal funds for a passenger rail line linking Chicago and the Quad-Cities.

There was no money, however, for the purchase of the Thomson Correctional Center, leaving its future as a federal facility in limbo.

Details of the compromise, which was reached late Friday, were unveiled early Tuesday. Votes are expected later this week.

The passenger rail money, which was awarded last October, was thrown into doubt in February, when Republicans who took control of the U.S. House of Representatives approved a $61 billion budget-cutting measure. The proposal rescinded the 2010 passenger rail awards.

The Senate rejected the plan, and ever since, Republicans and Democrats have been grappling over how much to spend to fund the government through Sept. 30.

The new agreement slices $1.5 billion from what President Barack Obama asked for, including $400 million from unobligated 2010 funds.

However, the deal leaves the Chicago-to-Iowa City project untouched because the recission likely will come from funding for a high-speed project in Florida that was rejected by the governor there, according to a congressional aide.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Tuesday none of eight major Illinois transportation projects that were in danger of losing previously approved money lost funds.

"Withholding these federal funds would have stopped eight important projects dead in their tracks while killing hundreds of Illinois jobs in the process," Durbin said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

"It's a bit of a relief we weren't included in this one," said Paul Rumler, executive director of the Quad-Cities Passenger Rail Coalition.

Still, officials say they'll remain vigilant.

"I don't think you can ever be secure in this environment until the money is in hand," Rumler said.

Durbin said he was working with the federal Department of Transportation to obligate the rail funds, so they and the other project funds wouldn't be subject to later revocations.

Still, it's likely to be several weeks and possibly months before the rail funds reach that stage, state officials say.

Meanwhile, the news wasn't as good for those hoping for funding for the purchase of the Thomson prison.

The budget deal did not include funds for Federal Bureau of Prisons to buy the vacant facility.

The administration had asked for $170 million, and last week, it pledged it wouldn't move Guantanamo Bay detainees there, a move backers of the deal hoped would ease GOP reluctance to approve the funds.

The absence of money in the fiscal year 2011 budget doesn't necessarily kill the deal.

Durbin, who has been leading the legislative effort to get the prison in federal hands, will meet Friday with the director of the Bureau of Prisons to talk about other funding sources, said Christina Mulka, a spokeswoman.

Previously, Durbin asked the bureau to consider excess funds under its control to pay for the purchase, a request likely to come up again.

The prisons bureau previously said it wants to buy Thomson to ease the overcrowding in the U.S. corrections system. The bureau's proposed 2012 budget asks for $67 million to activate the facility.