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Champaign County Board Backs High-Speed Rail Measure

The Champaign County Board has gone on record backing high-speed rail in the Midwest.

The board supported the non-binding resolution on a 15-to-8 vote Thursday night. Republicans Jonathan Schroder and Brad Jones joined all the board's Democrats in supporting the concept. Most Republicans argued that the U.S. is hardly in a financial position to pay for the rail system, saying what funds we do have should be used to keep up current infrastructure.

Aaron Esry said the state and the U.S. don't have any money for such a project, and won't for some time.

"I don't see how we can sit here and ask potentially more taxpayer money to be spent on another program at this point and time," he said. "Get our fiscal houses -- both the state and federal -- in shape, and we can look at this. At this point and time, I'm not going to vote for it."

But Democrat Tom Betz said this country should take the lead seen in places overseas, where high-speed rail networks present a real economic advantage.

"I personally don't expect to see it happen in my lifetime in this country, and in this area," he said. "I think there are places on the East Coast where it might be more effective. But the idea of abandoning this idea strikes me as not a very open, progressive thing to do."

Meanwhile, Democrat Michael Richards cited a feasibility study underway at the University of Illinois, and the ability for private investors to help support high-speed rail. The U of I is heading up the $1.2 million study to study financing options. The results are expected by the end of 2012.

The Champaign County Board's vote came a few hours after the executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association spoke in Champaign, discussing the potential for a high-speed line to Chicago. Rick Harnish said the 220-mile an hour trains would mean reaching downtown in 45 minutes, and O'Hare International Airport in just over an hour, connecting the University of Illinois to the international world.

"It becomes easier to attract the kind of staff that really keeps the U of I on the map," he said in an afternoon press conference. "It becomes easier to keep the young people that are coming here to the university - to keep them here, so that when they come up with a great idea at U of I, they can stay here and develop that."

Harnish's group calls for the 'bullet' trains, along with modernized 90-mile an hour Amtrak trains linking areas in the Midwest.