With a sagging economy, no one can be surprised when those in the know are predicting a decline for tourism in a city like Chicago. Air travel is more expensive than it used to be, and there are fewer flights this year to the city’s O’Hare and Midway airports.
But as a well-informed reader of the Chicago Tribune points out, it’s not all bad news. More and more people are coming to the city by trains.. particularly the routes subsidized by the state of Illinois.
September ridership on IDOT-sponsored trains on the Chicago-St. Louis route was up 3.5 percent over the same month in 2007, with ridership on the Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale route up 13 percent, and on the Chicago-Galesburg-Quincy route 18 percent. On the Chicago-Milwaukee route sponsored jointly by Illinois and Wisconsin, ridership on the popular Hiawatha trains was up more than 32 percent.
Even more important than the growing number of riders was the direction they rode: inbound to Chicago. The overwhelming majority of trips originated Downstate or in Wisconsin.
So are taxpayers getting their moneys worth when it comes to rail funding?
What’s really amazing about the tourists flocking to Chicago by train is how little it costs to bring them here. IDOT pays Amtrak about $28 million a year for its seven daily round trips in Illinois plus its 25 percent share of the bi-state Hiawatha service. That’s less than the cost of rebuilding one expressway interchange. For just a few dollars more we could add trains to Rockford, the Quad Cities, Peoria and Decatur, and for a few additional dollars Amtrak’s Chicago Union Station could be made as beautiful and welcoming as the popular new facility that Metra created for itself and South Shore under Millennium Park.
Chicago, as the historic hub for trains in the Midwest, stands to gain a lot from a new rennaisance of rail. Hopefully with the new administration we’ll see support of programs like the Midwest High-Speed Rail Project that can capitalize on the gains we’ve been seeing in our current system.