Rail improvement project delayed

Failed to receive final portion of funding from federal government

Completion of Springfield’s rail improvement project will be delayed beyond 2025 because the project failed to secure $138 million in funding from the federal government.

Springfield and Sangamon County backers of the years-long project had hoped 2025 would be the last year of construction on the massive project to alleviate rail congestion in the city’s downtown by consolidating Third Street corridor rail traffic along 10th Street.

Local officials were surprised and disappointed to learn in mid-December that the $138 million in hoped-for funding, awarded through competitive grants, won’t come through, and that the soonest the project will be eligible for another round of grant awards is August 2024.

The $138 million request represented between one-fourth and one-third of total funding for the $300 million-plus project, which also includes funding from the state, Springfield city government, county government and affected railroad companies.

“That’s the last piece of money we need to finish the project,” Sangamon County Board chairperson Andy Van Meter told Illinois Times after the Dec. 19 County Board meeting.

The latest news means completion of the project would be delayed at least a year, which will add $10 million to the total cost because of inflation-related increases in building materials and other expenses, he said.

“Our project is absolutely, literally shovel-ready,” Van Meter said. “Unfortunately, the money was awarded to projects elsewhere in the country that don’t even have land acquired or engineering done. They don’t really tell you why you weren’t selected.”

Van Meter, a Springfield Republican, said he was particularly disappointed with the project’s failure to secure a grant through the Federal Railroad Administration in the wake of comments made 18 months ago by the agency’s director to Van Meter, former Springfield mayor Jim Langfelder and other local leaders involved with the project.

“He told us this is the best rail project in the country, and we would like to use your community as a model to cite to other communities on how to do a rail project,” Van Meter said of the meeting with FRA Administrator Amit Bose.

“So we had a high degree of certainty that we would be approved in this round, but we didn’t get the money,” Van Meter said.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, said in a news release Dec. 20 that he sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a fellow Democrat, that said the “city of Springfield and its partners are eager to move the project across the finish line after a decade of effort.”

Durbin said he appreciated the federal Department of Transportation’s support in securing more than $90 million in federal funding for the project, including a 2022 Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant.

“With this support,” Durbin wrote, “Springfield has been able to construct underpasses at Carpenter Street, Ash Street and Laurel Street, as well as new double-track rail bridges at Fifth and Sixth streets, among other work that is underway.”

But Durbin added: “The final portion of the project, including building a new transportation center with train, bus and parking access, cannot be completed without additional federal funding.”

click to enlarge Rail improvement project delayed
An aerial view of the Sangamon County Building (at right) and the connected regional transportation center and four- to five-story parking deck planned to be built immediately north of the county building along South Ninth Street in Springfield.
Because the project was not a recipient of any 2023 DOT grants, the project will not be finalized in 2025 as Illinois state leaders had hoped, Durbin’s news release said.

“While this has been disappointing to all who are invested in the project, it is my hope that you will strongly consider (the project’s) applications for any federal rail grants in 2024 so the project can move forward,” Durbin wrote in his letter to Buttigieg.

It’s unclear whether Sangamon County officials can ask for future grant funds to cover the inflation-related $10 million increase in building costs, Van Meter said.

“We will be studying that over the next couple of months,” he said.

Van Meter said other options for covering final costs of the project include downsizing the transportation center, also known as The Hub, increasing funding from Sangamon County government and asking the state for more money.

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer at Illinois Times. He can be reached at [email protected], 217-679-7810 or twitter.com/DeanOlsenIT.

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