Monday, July 8, 2013

Should CR get rail service?

 (The trains of Sodor, swiped from

Sunday's Gazette reminds us that in 2006 a study by R.L. Banks and Associates assessed the feasibility of commuter rail service between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Rail service has certain appeal, for environmental and traffic congestion reasons--and, let's face it, it's part of our heritage. (The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City (CRANDIC) line ran passenger trains from 1904 to 1953.) Nevertheless, we should proceed cautiously, if at all, keeping an open mind for alternatives.

Disclaimer #1: I like trains. Trains are cool.

Disclaimer #2: I do not work in Iowa City, and so would very rarely use the commuter rail service.

Intercity rail service would address the reality that many two-career couples in eastern Iowa are divided between two cities. For example, my friend Dan teaches with me at Coe; his wife works in Iowa City. I nominate Dan to take the train. According to census figures cited in the Gazette article, more than 6000 people commute daily each way between Cedar Rapids and iowa City. Currently there is no alternative to driving, usually by I-380 (though S.R. 965 is a workable alternative if necessitated, as it was by a major pile-up on 380 Tuesday evening the 2nd). Even if both cities stopped sprawling, and families over time moved close to one job, in such cases they couldn't possibly move close to both. Rail service would also draw the cities of the corridor closer together, helping recruit employees from towns along the line, and spurring commercial development around rail stops.

People from Cedar Rapids commute to Waterloo and Cedar Falls as well, though I have no numbers or even awareness that train service between the two areas has been thought of. So my ideal train line, straight from my brain to your eyes without any research as to where actual tracks are laid, would run from Cedar Falls to Iowa City, with maybe two stops in Waterloo, one in Center Point, three in Cedar Rapids (downtown, airport, one other), North Liberty, and maybe Coralville. That would serve the needs of commuters as well as university students, and special events like football games. [Update: Now I've looked at the Iowa rail map and see the tracks don't go through Center Point but Vinton. OK.]

One problem is people have to want to take the train. And it's not clear they do. As the Gazette article points out, "the concept has largely fallen off the radar in the past several years with no significant clamoring for it to come back." They go on to cite support from a personal trainer who lives in Coralville and works in Cedar Rapids, but in several places around town so she wouldn't be able to use the train. She would like fewer drivers on the interstate when she's commuting. This recalls a recent Onion headline in which such-and-such a percentage of the public favors "public transportation for other people."

Congestion alone doesn't make rail service compelling. The Metra system around Chicago serves thousands of passengers on a daily basis. But still people drive on the brutally congested Eisenhower and Dan Ryan expressways. It might well help nudge people towards rail travel if there weren't oceans of downtown surface parking, and if any calls to widen the highway were resisted.

A second problem is that the tracks in Cedar Rapids would need sufficient upgrade. Because of that R.L. Banks studied a potential line running from downtown Iowa City only as far as the Eastern Iowa airport. I love research, but if that's the proposal, why even bother? I can't imagine that there is a single person in Cedar Rapids who would find it convenient to drive (or bus) to the airport to catch a train to Iowa City. Heck, by the time you get to the airport from my house you're a third of the way there and have fought more than a third of the traffic. Either do the train right, or don't do it at all. An airport-to-Iowa City line is a surefire money loser that would taint rail service in the area for decades to follow.

We can add other dimensions to the issue as well. What opportunity costs are created by investing public money into commuter rail service? Improving connections to Iowa City, and arguably Cedar Falls, could do much to improve economic opportunity in Cedar Rapids, and rail promises an environmentally-sustainable, community-building means of doing that. But are there other ways to promote opportunity, sustainability and community that would be more cost-effective?

Are there other means available to provide an intercity transportation alternative? I've poked around on transit sites and haven't seen mention of any, but I'm hardly an expert. Maybe rail is over and there's some new better way to do it?

So far I've thought about the line in a vacuum. The equation changes if interstate rail service is developed, particularly if there is a line from Omaha to Chicago through Iowa City. At that point I think building a CR spur becomes compelling, as compelling as it was to build I-380 back in the day. An accompanying editorial in today's Gazette cites many good reasons to develop this line, but the governor and legislative Republicans are having none of it. Yes, it would cost money, but so does keeping up roads.

Commuter rail service is definitely a topic worth pursuing. People in the communities along I-380 need to think about what the future is going to look like. The term Corridor is used in ways that suggest people anticipate this area becoming a commercial and research hub. The combined population of Linn and Johnson counties in 2010 is 350,000. If we see that growing in the next 20 years to, say, 400,000, where are we going to put those people? Are we anticipating that they will be mostly in the metro areas or spread along the corridor? If we are going to avoid sprawl and all its attendant problems, we need to develop attractive cities, structure transportation to encourage urbanization and discourage sprawl, and share revenue so that communities like Shueyville or Walford (or Hiawatha) don't feel the need to encourage sprawl to come their way in order to thrive.

The economies of the cities along I-380 are already linked. Right now those links are by automobile, and are very vulnerable to gasoline price spikes, shortages and such. I'm not a peak-oiler, but at the same time I find that the promise of the tar sands providing cheap fuel forever hard to believe. We need to be contemplating a back-up plan.


Gregg Hennigan, "Commuter Rail on Slow Track," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 7 July 2013 []

"History: Timeline," Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway Company,

"Passenger Rail Fact Check," Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce,

"Riding the Rails," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 7 July 2013, 9A, 12A


Yonah Freemark, "The Administration Refreshes Its Push for a Major Infusion of Funds into the National Rail Program," The Transport Politic, 29 April 2013 []. Describes Obama's rail proposal, which is ambitious in content but not much changed in approach from what's previously been dead-on-arrival in Congress, which as has been argued on this site is dysfunctional. The Federal Rail Administration funding authorization expires this year, though, which may or may not change thing.

Iowa Department of Transportation, "Rail Transportation Plan" (2009), Summarizes studies of various freight and passenger rail proposals, some of which are in the official plan (like Omaha-to-Chicago via Iowa City) and some of which are not (Iowa City-to-Eastern Iowa Airport).

Robert Puentes, Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane, "A New Alignment: Strengthening America's Commitment to Passenger Rail," Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, March 2013 []. Recommendations based on a study of Amtrak, which finds increased ridership and revenue on short-distance (less than 400 miles) routes connecting major metropolitan areas. Chicago-to-Omaha would exceed that, of course, at 471.

1 comment:

  1. From Niles Ross...


    If you build it, they will come.

    OK. Not really.

    We do invest in all manner of things with the hope that it will work out. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it does not. Businesses go bankrupt, yet we give them tax financing.

    People who are in poverty have difficulty getting cars, owning cars, maintaining cars, yet we expect them to find jobs wherever the jobs are. Mass transportation opens their world to additional possibilities.

    The only research university hospital in the State of Iowa is 30 miles away from the second largest city in the State. Read above. People in poverty have difficulty getting cars, owning cars, maintaining cars, yet we want a health care system based on personal responsibility.

    University of Iowa, 30 miles away, has a very high quality university. People in poverty...oh, gee, I already said that.

    I cannot speak for the difference between rail transportation and bus transportation. However, mass transportation is needed for students, the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. None of those have the loud voice of those who already have cars, and see no need for mass transportation.

    We talk of a Corridor this or that leaving out those who can truly benefit.

    Perhaps we don’t care.

    The opportunity advantages for society are enormous. Do we care about that?

    Niles Ross
    Cedar Rapids


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