Our View: Amtrak headed the wrong way

Where is the outrage?

During these lean days of layoffs, furloughs and general across-the-board belt tightening, where is the backlash to Gov. Pat Quinn's apparent decision that the state will pay an estimated $11.5 million more than it has to in order to restore Amtrak service from Chicago to Dubuque? That estimated difference represents nearly 20 percent of the state's entire $60 million investment in the project, yet it has drawn a collective yawn from those who tend to be the most vocal about government spending.

People such as State Sen. Brad Burzynski, R-Rochelle, for example, who derided Quinn after his State of the State address in January, saying his plan "just added more debt to the state of Illinois. That creates concern for me. It really does bother me."

And people such as State Rep. Ron Wait, R-Belvidere, who called Quinn's January address, "a lot of fluff and puff, but not really too much substance there."

For the record, Burzynski is not bothered by Quinn's Amtrak decision. He's in favor of the state paying for a more expensive route. As for Wait, he contributed his own bit of fluff and puff when weighing in on the issue last July, saying, "I haven't looked that closely at it."

And why not? Yet we wonder why Illinois is in the mess that it's in.

In fairness to Burzynski, who, like Wait, represents both Genoa and the Rockford-Belvidere region, he has at least been willing to take a side. But it's the wrong side, and more so now than it was when he lost his argument last fall.

That's when, after months of debate, the Illinois Department of Transportation, in an application for federal funding, selected a route that would run through Genoa rather than a route through Belvidere that was endorsed by Burzynski and pushed hard by Rockford regional officials.

IDOT officials cited an Amtrak study that showed the route through Genoa would cost less to upgrade, be less cumbersome to develop and would carry more riders. But when the project failed to get approval for funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, both the funding decision and the route was back in the state's hands.

Leave it to the cash-strapped state of Illinois to choose the more expensive route. 

Burzynski's reasoning is that he says the Belvidere route would pave the way for Metra service in Rockford. Yet the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning estimates it will cost $247 million to get Metra there, and an estimated $10 million more in annual operating expenses. The state's investment in Amtrak gets them nowhere near that, and RMAP's optimistic vision of millions more stimulus dollars forthcoming looks particularly specious given that the project didn't even make the first round of funding.

Before Quinn's March 8 budget speech, Burzynski told a Daily Chronicle reporter, "What I want to hear from (Quinn) is fiscal responsibility – hold the line on spending." Yet he's supporting a fiscally irresponsible Amtrak plan, illustrating the common perception that one politician's investment is another's waste of taxpayers' money.  

Metra's commuter service would be a welcome addition to the Rockford region, but there is currently no real plan or funding source available that can make that happen. Instead, state officials are on the verge of approving a multi-million dollar overpayment to bring passenger rail to Rockford.

If the plan goes through, we'll have invested millions of dollars for a commuter train to nowhere.