SPRINGFIELD - The second phase of Illinois' venture into speedier passenger rail service is expected to get under way April 5.
In an announcement in Chicago on Tuesday, state and federal officials said $685 million in track and crossing upgrades between Dwight and Lincoln could eventually boost Amtrak train speeds to 110 miles per hour and reduce the well-traveled St. Louis-Chicago run to under four hours.
"High-speed rail is more than just an alternative mode of travel - it is a shot in the arm to today's recovering economy, and an investment in infrastructure that will serve us for generations to come," U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said in a joint announcement with Gov. Pat Quinn.
Illinois has tapped into $1.2 billion in federal funds to help finance the rail upgrades. Improvements to the Union Pacific-owned freight tracks south of Lincoln, such as concrete ties and new rails, have been under way since September.
City and village officials up and down the route have been meeting with UP and others involved in the project in an attempt to iron out details of when track work will begin in specific locations.
"We've sent them a list of our issues and concerns including emergency access and special events," said Wayne Aldrich, Normal Uptown Development director. "We've got a lot of pedestrians crossing the tracks to get to school."
The work likely will close down portions of the tracks for periods of time.
"It would be best if they postpone the major work until at least summer when Illinois State University is on break," Aldrich said.
Officials say the first trains traveling at 110 mph on the Chicago-to-St. Louis line will make their debut between Dwight and Pontiac as early as 2012. The remaining work is expected to be done by 2014.
Durbin and Quinn promoted the project as a major job creator. An estimated 6,000 direct and indirect jobs are expected to be created during the construction phase.
"Illinois has always been a strong railroad state," Quinn said. "We believe in moving people by rail."
There are some roadblocks facing the project. Springfield, for example, is balking at an increased number of faster trains rolling through the middle of the city. A study designed to find the best route is under way.
The state also is conducting a study to determine the best route for Amtrak trains between Joliet and downtown Chicago.
Mary Ann Ford contributed to this report.
Contact Kurt Erickson at email@example.com or 217-789-0865.