UI community members interested in potential Chicago-Iowa City Amtrak route

University of Iowa students, staff, and City of Iowa City officials see various benefits to a Chicago-Iowa City Amtrak route.

Isabelle Foland, News Reporter

Nathan Creech is intrigued by the possibility of a Chicago-Iowa City Amtrak line. The University of Iowa senior currently drives himself and carpools with friends to get back to his hometown of New Lenox, Illinois — a suburb of Chicago. A direct train would provide a more comfortable ride home.

He’s not alone in looking forward to jumping a train home. Nearly 35 percent of UI students hail from Illinois. But it goes both ways: Many Iowa City residents say they long to travel to Chicago more easily to catch a baseball game, watch a show, or just experience the big city life for a weekend.

Iowa City resident Ida Santana moved to the city from Nashville last year and has since traveled to Chicago multiple times to see theatre performances, the Art Institute of Chicago, eat at restaurants, and stay in Airbnbs in Chicago neighborhoods.

“My husband and I would both be elated to have Amtrak. We go to Chicago a few times a year,” Santana said. “I just think the idea of mass transit … it makes life easy.”

And now, Iowa City is one step closer to securing a Chicago-Iowa City Amtrak route after city officials explored the possibility for almost a decade. While the project is still not guaranteed to happen because of several obstacles on the state and federal levels, it would potentially benefit thousands of Iowans and Illinoisians alike.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Creech said. “Having a car on campus is honestly kind of a privilege. Without that, you can find someone to  come to pick you up. And also, the area where I’m from is right by Joliet and the highway, in that portion of I-80, there are a lot of accidents there. It always is pretty stressful getting where I live, so I think a train would definitely make it a lot easier.”

According to fall 2022 enrollment data from the UI Office of the Registrar, there are currently 18,333 enrolled students from Iowa, and 5,840 students enrolled at the UI who are from Illinois. Illinois is the state with the largest share of nonresident UI students.

In mid-October, the Iowa City City Council unanimously approved the $475,000 purchase and acquisition of three residential properties near the Iowa Interstate Railroad rail yard and Oak Grove Park to make room for a potential Iowa City-Chicago Amtrak route.

This purchase is one of several steps Iowa City has taken to facilitate the potential agreement with Amtrak.

Amanda Martin, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Rail Transportation Bureau, said the Iowa DOT has been working with Amtrak since about 2007 to determine the feasibility and logistics of a Chicago-Iowa City route. A study commissioned by both entities determined the Chicago-Iowa City route would run two round trips per day, Martin said.

The Iowa DOT received federal funding for the project in 2010 then conducted an environmental impact statement from Chicago to Omaha, Nebraska, Martin said. As a result, the Iowa DOT determined the most feasible place for the route to be constructed is on the Iowa Interstate Railroad, Martin said.

RELATED: Iowa City City Council buys properties for potential Amtrak Iowa City to Chicago route

Martin said the state of Illinois is currently working with the Iowa Interstate Railroad and BNSF, a major North American railroad company, to establish a route from Chicago to Moline, Illinois. If the route gets approved and constructed, the state of Iowa would consider extending the Chicago-Moline route to Iowa City.

“You have to use a host railroad to be able to introduce a passenger rail like this. Otherwise, if you build a new railroad, it’s so expensive, you can’t afford it. There’s no way to justify it,” Martin said. “So all the states that introduce new intercity passenger rails, they put it on what we call host railroads and existing freight railroads.”

Because the project is not guaranteed to happen, there is not much else Iowa City officials can do to prepare for the route, Iowa City City Manager Geoff Fruin said.

Fruin said the route is not guaranteed because Iowa did not match the federal funds the government provided for the project in 2010, which was a requirement the state had to meet to receive the federal funding.

“We will certainly continue to advocate for the creation of that line, whether that’s at the federal or state level, but in terms of planning locally, there’s not a whole lot more we can do right now until we know that there’s some funding in place to bring that line here to Iowa City,” he said.

Other nearby Big Ten schools have established Amtrak routes, including the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. These routes saw a total of 156,462 and 180,427 riders in 2019, respectively.

According to the Amtrak website ticket prices:

  • Coach seats are listed at a starting price of $40, and business seats are listed at a starting price of $98 to travel from Chicago to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  • Coach seats are listed at a starting price of $17, and business seats are listed at a starting price of $53 to travel from Chicago to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

The Amtrak route for Chicago saw over 3 million riders in 2019, with nearby suburbs also seeing substantial ridership.

Erin Monroe, UI assistant director of admissions for the Chicago area, said a Chicago-Iowa City Amtrak route would benefit UI students who originally live in Illinois.

“I know that Amtrak runs to several of our other Big Ten peers, so when students are considering their college options, distance and affordability of getting to and from campus is something that’s on their mind,” Monroe said. “I’ve certainly been asked before specifically if we’ve had a train that comes from the Chicagoland area to Iowa City.”

Fruin said the line would provide more economic opportunities in Iowa City because it would connect it to other larger cities and economies.

According to the Amtrak website, the projected economic impact of a Chicago-Iowa City route would be $81 million annually, plus $2.2 billion in economic activity from one-time capital investments.

“You can look at communities, particularly college communities, that have rail lines established, and they generally perform really well, which I think is why Amtrak really wants to connect that Chicago to Quad Cities line one stop further to Iowa City,” Fruin said. “Because typically, university communities have significantly higher ridership on a per capita basis than non-university communities.”

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