City Scribbler: Time to be honest about passenger rail

(ROCKFORD)–To paraphrase who said it best after Gov. Bruce Rauner killed the half-billion-dollar transportation overhaul that would have brought an Amtrak line back to Rockford, the money was never there in the first place.

That is what State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, noted when the city was left wondering what to do with plans to turn downtown into a multi-modal hub of activity.

And he was right. Former Gov. Pat Quinn dangled $200 million in discretionary money in front of Rockford, and city leaders jumped all over it.

After all, Rockford was already in a major push to redo a downtown marred with roadblocks, most notably a lack of housing and only a marginal demand for a 156-room hotel. But, with Friends of Ziock determined to rehab the city’s first skyscraper, and the UW Health Sports Factory already a go, Rockford needed a complementing project and fast.

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Quinn’s phantom train announcement was, therefore, music to Mayor Larry Morrissey’s ears.  Rail was one of the “Rs” Morrissey promised when he first stumped for the job. Roads, Rail, … . There were a couple more, but that’s not important right now.

It is now more than two years later and there’s no riverfront hotel or train station. Even more noteworthy is what was sprinkled into a recent news story about the ongoing push for passenger rail.

Here’s an excerpt of a WREX report from Wednesday, Nov. 23.

Last week Transform Rockford announced it was forming a project committee to help add passenger rail.

Morrissey said while the idea has faced hurdles in the past, he still sees the benefit.

Morrissey said there are three options for service including commuter rail which would likely stop at multiple stations in Rockford, high-speed rail which could stop at the airport, or Amtrak which likely would stop at a station in downtown Rockford.

“We have put on hold the development of the station until such time that we have a realistic picture of what the track improvements, and rail service might just be,” Morrissey said.

Legalese aside, the tell is obvious. We now have another player, and Thanksgiving seems like a perfect time for Transform Rockford to make itself part of a story about a barely breathing Rockford boondoggle that is the Ziock/Amerock hotel and Amtrak.

Truthfully, even with the state subsidy, a downtown Amtrak station is the cart before the unborn horse, regardless of what anyone says. If Rockford gets high-speed rail that stops at “multiple stations in Rockford,” in this lifetime, it would be nothing short of miraculous. The mayor could say Rockford is building a spaceport on top of City Hall, and it would come with the same results.

Here is a simpler way to look at it:

A train station next to a high-rise hotel aimed largely at guests of the UW Health Sports Factory paints a picture of a vibrant epicenter. We’re told downtown Rockford will soon be a sports-tourism destination with state-of-the-art services for those flocking to the city for tournaments and special events. And it will be Amtrak that will get them here. We already have the Chicago Blackhawks’ AHL franchise and City Market that attracts 100,000 visitors a year. This is how these projects are being sold to aldermen and Rockford taxpayers.

Before we break this down, keep in mind, there’s no 156-room hotel. And until developer Gary Gorman can show how he is going to pay for the 67-million-dollar project, the Scribbler will assume there never will be.

So, let’s talk trains (or a spaceport) anyway.

Think of this. Would it make sense for a family to pack its van, drive it to a Chicagoland park-and-ride, transfer their luggage to a train, then sit back and enjoy a comfortable, three-hour ride to Rockford? The Scribbler can’t be sure without market research, so let’s err on the side of caution and say NO.

That same family will likely pack the same van, point it west, and use the already-laid track to Rockford called I-90, which allows for a trip that takes half the time. Again, the Scribbler would love to be proven wrong here.

Maybe rail cheerleader Chuck Sweeny could provide an answer. He has Transform Rockford at his disposal. With he and Executive Director Mike Schablaske both on the Rockford Register Star Editorial Board, they ought to come up with something along the lines of smart propaganda.

Alright, let’s get back to it. What about those who want to avoid driving to Rockford?

The short answer is that they’ll do it anyway, opting to get here and back as quickly as possible.

Oh, you mean those for whom driving is just not an option? Would they use Amtrak to get to and from the Forest City?

Well, we can’t forget them. Wait. We haven’t. For many years, I-90 has been Van Galder’s regular route to and from Chicago. Buses stop at both airports and an Amtrak station.

The Rockford Van Galder/Coach USA bus stations even have parking. What a concept. The Scribbler is willing to bet Van Galder’s ridership data would indicate that the company is already providing a more efficient service than what Amtrak could offer.

So, who would use a Rockford Amtrak line?

Again, taxpayers have been assured a downtown boon will produce the lion’s share of riders and that Rockford could support a train. To make some sense out of such claims, we’d have to assume that the Sports Factory would attract enough guests to fill 156 hotel rooms on a regular basis. But, we have no hotel, and the sports center is barely in it sixth month.

Again, we have no hotel. Even if we did, success is still a long way off. While the hotel could be built within the next couple years, it’s still a pipe dream of a pipe dream.

For the sake of argument though, it may be fair to broach the possibility of a maximized UW Health Sports Factory and a more vibrant downtown even without a 156-room hotel or with just the 40-room boutique Millennium Center.

Sure, Rockford could still see City Market-like crowds downtown, especially on weekends. The corridors could swell with traffic, families in town to watch sporting events along the Rock River. But, would these guests venture downtown by train?

The better question is where would we likely find these families after their games? Would they choose the largely upscale downtown fare? Truthfully, basic market research indicates they’d flock to retail- and fast-food districts. These are the more family friendly establishments near east-side hotels, retail chains, Van Galder bus stations and I-90.

And because the majority of downtown residents have little or no disposable income, it’s safe to say they wouldn’t venture out of Rockford. Yes, that will change as more projects like the Burnham Lofts open. But, aside from upscale apartments that only a select few developers have finished in recent years, market-rate housing is still scarce. Most downtown residents live in complexes like the Faust Landmark, Luther Center and fringe RHA properties. That demographic is not known to ride Amtrak to Chicago. These folks do all they can to budget for dollar-store potted meat, pocket-size liquor and single cigarettes.

Downtown is years from becoming a self-sufficient marketplace capable of supporting what developers are building; that should be the first step, before adding more entertainment, multi-room hotels and passenger rail. There has been some progress, but not enough to justify a sky-rise Embassy Suites or Amtrak line.

Well then there’s that.

But, what about travelers from neighboring areas? Would it make sense to market Amtrak regionally to attract ridership from Beloit/South Beloit, Roscoe/Rockton, the Parks and other bedroom communities? Data would certainly provide an answer. But, the Scribbler doubts anyone will bother to truly mine any. And, these communities are already being served by Van Galder.

State Rep. John Cabello, R-Machesney Park, provided the only sensible comment in Wednesday’s report.

“I just don’t see the money there (at) this point,” Cabello told WREX. “Again, it’s something on a wish list…what we would like to see in 30 years.”

Let’s just be honest and take it one step at a time.

Ciao…

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