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  • Sacred Conversations 2016

Choo Choo Blues

As originally posted in the Illinois Times on December 19th, 2013

Community activists say that minorities aren’t getting enough out of high-speed rail and railroad consolidation work in Springfield.

“This is not a game we play – this is real, folks,” Leroy Jordan, chairman of the Rail Task Force for the Faith Coalition for the Common Good, told reporters at a press conference last week. “We don’t want to be left out. We want to be involved and engaged in planning all of this rail project.”

Under an agreement with Sangamon County and the city, one-half of 1 percent of $315 million in planned railroad work in the city is supposed to be allocated for job training programs aimed at getting work for minorities. That works out to slightly less than $1.6 million. So far, just $120,000 has been reserved for an internship program at Hanson Professional Services, a local engineering company that is designing the rail project that includes upgrades to corridors on Third and Tenth streets, with the eventual goal of consolidating rail traffic on the Tenth Street Corridor and shutting down Third Street tracks owned and operated by Union Pacific that are being upgraded to allow for faster train speeds.

With less than $65 million in funding secured for both corridors, there is no guarantee that consolidation will ever happen, but the Faith Coalition says that money for job training should be allocated as money comes in, and by that yardstick, government and the private sector are falling short.

When crossing improvements on Third Street are considered, the coalition says that nearly $63.9 million in design and construction money has been secured. Under the half-percent formula, nearly $320,000 should have been set aside for job training programs. Slightly more than $27 million has been secured for design work, engineering and construction of an overpass at Carpenter Street on the Tenth Street corridor. Under the half-percent formula, more than $135,000 should have been reserved for job training when Third Street crossing improvements are taken out of the equation.

The coalition says that money for job training should be based on the total amount spent on all rail corridors.

“To us, it’s all-encompassing,” said Shelly Heideman, executive director for the Faith Coalition for the Common Good, which includes churches, labor unions and several community groups.

Hanson Professional Services, Springfield and Sangamon County are paying for the internship program, which will cost $60,000 a year. Kevin Seals, a chief environmental scientist at Hanson who is helping run the program, said the parties have committed to two years of funding and plan to renew the internship program in two-year increments for as long as it takes to finish work on Tenth Street, which could be as long as a decade. At this point, however, there is no guarantee of funding beyond two years.

The coalition says it’s not enough.

“We want more involvement,” Jordan said at last week’s press conference.

The half-percent formula is contained in an agreement signed by officials from Sangamon County and Springfield in 2011, but it is more a promise than an ironclad contract. So far, officials with the Illinois Department of Transportation have not signed the agreement, but the state has been sending representatives to monthly planning and monitoring meetings that include officials from the city, the county and the coalition. In addition, IDOT and the coalition last week teamed up to hold a workshop aimed at teaching minority-owned businesses how to get loans and help in securing state contracts. More than a dozen business owners attended.

Heideman said that the coalition hopes to convince IDOT secretary Ann Schneider to sign the agreement next month.

“We’ve just got to keep pushing the decision makers,” Heideman said. “They’re not there yet. We’re just going to keep putting feet to the fire.”

The coalition is also concerned that the government plans to spend as much as $30 million on Third Street, much of it for crossing improvements so that trains won’t have to blow whistles as they zip across surface streets, while guaranteeing no money for silent crossings on Tenth Street.

“We feel that it’s unfair for Third Street to get all this benefit right off the bat,” Heideman said. “There’s no guarantee that Tenth Street will ever get a quiet zone.”

But jobs for minorities, Heideman says, are most important.

“Our first priority is jobs,” she said.

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