Nebraska lawmaker pitches return to Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission

By: - March 6, 2023 7:35 pm

State Sen. George Dungan of Lincoln presents a proposal for Nebraska to rejoin the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission on March 6, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Almost eight years after Nebraska left a Midwest commission designed to improve passenger rail services, a lawmaker pitched Monday for Nebraska to rejoin the group.

Legislative Bill 44, proposed by State Sen. George Dungan of Lincoln, would have Nebraska rejoin the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, a coalition of states in the region working toward a modern rail system.

Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota and Wisconsin are current members of the commission.

“Nebraska has been a leader in rail for over 100 years. We are a pro-rail state,” Dungan told the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. “It’s important for Nebraska to have a voice in current and future passenger development that will bring a significant transportation and economic benefit to our state.”

No one testified in opposition at the hearing, although there were six letters in opposition.

Nebraska’s membership

Nebraska left the commission in 2015 under a proposal by then-State Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion. Senators voted 39-6 to leave the commission, with Kintner citing in the bill’s intent that membership benefits “do not outweigh the expenditure of tax dollars on dues.”

Dungan said Nebraska has approximately $15,000 in back-paid dues. However, members of the commission have told him they would waive the dues should Nebraska rejoin.

Iowa officials have also indicated they would rejoin the commission alongside Nebraska, Dungan said, partially due to a goal to get a rail line between Nebraska and Chicago.

The Department of Administrative Services estimated the bill would cost nearly $13,000 in fiscal 2023-24 and about $15,000 in the following fiscal year.

But Dungan said this estimate “misstated” a couple of details, including that the commission is not created from “thin air.” 

He said rejoining could provide a “minuscule” impact with administrative costs but less than what is currently estimated.

‘Future of our state’

Richard Schmeling, president of Citizens for Improved Transit, a group working to improve transportation and public transportation generally, said it’s his dream to see a system that serves all Nebraskans.

Richard Schmeling, president of Citizens For Improved Transit, testifies in favor of a proposal for Nebraska to rejoin the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission on March 6, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Schmeling said that doesn’t mean a passenger rail everywhere but said more access is necessary.

“This whole business, this bill, is more than just talking about passenger trains,” Schmeling said. “We’re talking about the future of our state.”

One major interstate route that runs through the state is the California Zephyr, an Amtrak passenger train that connects Chicago and San Francisco.

Andrew Foust, legislative director for the SMART Transportation Division, known as the United Transportation Union or SMART-TD, also testified in support.

Foust said it’s important for Nebraska to be in conversation with others. 

Such efforts, Foust said, could help with congested Interstates and make rail travel more affordable.

Schmeling added another benefit: combating brain drain.

People want to live where there are transportation options, Schmeling said, so there could be a critical return on investment for every dollar spent.

“We’re back in the 19th century,” Schmeling said. “We need to move forward.”

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling recently graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a double major in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. He reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan before joining the Nebraska Examiner staff as an intern.