By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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LOVES PARK — Three years after helping secure $275 million in funding to restore passenger rail service between Rockford and Chicago, state Sen. Steve Stadelman said he remains optimistic that plans to bring the train here are on track.
Stadelman, D-Loves Park, said this week that passenger rail is one of his two major priorities along with stabilizing the future of the Belvidere Assembly Plant. But there are multiple steps before the rail service is a reality.
Still to be decided is where the downtown Rockford station would be located, and whether Metra or Amtrak would operate the train.
“Hopefully, by the end of the year the Department of Transportation will name an operator,” Stadelman said. “I think that will make it a little more believable for people.”
The state set aside the funding in 2019 to bring passenger rail to Rockford with stops in Elgin, Huntley, Belvidere and Chicago. But there’s been little movement since then.
The Illinois Department of Transportation estimated that service could be up and running by the end of 2025 or 2026, Stadelman said Wednesday during his speech before the Parks Chamber of Commerce.
“I know we’ve been talking about it for a long time, I’m sure many of you are still skeptical,” he told the group of about 100 business leaders at Forest Hills Country Club. “There are skeptics, but I truly believe this is going to happen.”
One of those skeptics had addressed the same group a month earlier. State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, had a distinctly different take on the likelihood of passenger rail coming here.
“I don’t necessarily see it in our lifetime,” Syverson said last month. “It’s years and years away.”
Syverson said Amtrak doesn’t make sense as an operator because “it rarely runs on time. So if you’re using it for business purposes it would be problematic.” He said that Metra’s next stop is in Huntley.
“Then it will be a while before they start doing the study to move it any further,” Syverson said. “It sounds good. A lot of people are talking about how great it’s going to be, but it’s probably not going to happen in the next five years or 10 years.”
Syverson also said a sales tax would be needed to help subsidize service, and its unclear whether taxpayers would support that.
Stadelman told business leaders that rail service from Rockford to Chicago needs to have travel times under two hours to be competitive with cars and buses. It also needs to be reasonably priced at $20 to $25 and have frequent service. If that can be achieved, he said bringing passenger rail here would be a major boost to the economy by allowing people to live here and work in Chicagoland, or vice versa.
“This is about economic development,” Stadelman said. “It’s not about taking a trip into Chicago to see the Cubs or visit Michigan Avenue for a tourist trip.”
Getting electric in Belvidere
During his nearly 50-minute speech Wednesday, Stadelman also said he was optimistic Stellantis would bring electric vehicle production to Belvidere.
Stadelman was the senate sponsor of a bill that established incentives for electric vehicle production in Illinois.
Gov. JB Pritzker signed that bill in November.
The goal of the legislation was to stabilize the future of the Belvidere Assembly Plant, which has been disrupted as many automakers have by the global microchip shortage. But beyond that, Stadelman said bringing electric vehicle production here would help ensure the plant remains one of the region’s largest employers for years to come.
Stellantis has not offered any public comments about the likelihood it would bring such production to Belvidere, but Stadelman said he’s optimistic because the automaker worked with lawmakers on the formation of the incentive package.
“I don’t think they would’ve been as serious in helping us put that package together if they weren’t serious about retooling that Belvidere plant,” he said. “I remain optimistic, but obviously until you see that deal signed and that product come in it remains a major task.”
Stadelman also used his speech to combat misinformation on population loss in Illinois, compare the state’s income taxes to its neighbors and combat a negative perception about Illinois’ business climate.
He was the last of local state legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, to speak before the Parks Chamber in its legislative series.
He opened his speech by saying that despite the rhetoric that dominates news headlines, Springfield lawmakers often work together. He estimated 85-90% of legislation is bipartisan.
“No party has a monopoly on good ideas. Politics at the end of the day is about compromise,” he said. “If you go through life in the political world thinking, ‘OK you’re an R or a D I support you or I don’t support you,’ nothing gets done.”
He said negativity and inaccurate self-talk about our community and our state is a major challenge we need to overcome.
“I’m bullish on this area,” he said. “I think our best days are ahead. I truly believe that.”
Next up | State of Harlem schools
Who: The next speaker in the Parks Chamber of Commerce’s legislative series is Terrell Yarbrough, superintendent of the Harlem School District.
When: 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21
Where: Forest Hills Country Club, 5135 Forest Hills Road
Tickets: $30 for members; $40 for non-members. Reserve a seat HERE.