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East St. Louis Amtrak station proposal years late, millions short

    When I was the executive director of the Southwestern Illinois Development Authority back in the 1990s, we created a fund that was devoted to the economic development of East St. Louis. The fund would generate millions of dollars over a couple of decades so we were taking a long-term, strategic view on its investment.
Al Ortbals    We decided that a good first step would be to create a strategic development plan that would lay out a strategy for development and a game plan to accomplish it. Obviously, it was important that city government be involved in creating this plan. In fact, we intended to work with the city to select a professional planner and pay the bill but play a minor role in the planning process.
    We set a meeting to inform the mayor of this fund and our desire to have a blueprint created to help guide our investments. He bought in enthusiastically and we decided to meet again to continue the discussion.
    When we arrived for that second meeting we received a bit of a surprise. The mayor had invited a couple of individuals who he introduced to us as urban planners. When you work in economic development as I had for a long time at that point, you’re familiar with the firms and individuals who provide these services. I had never heard of either them or their company but we decided to play along. We agreed that they would return to the next meeting with a proposal that would include the firm’s and individual’s qualifications, an outline of their approach and their proposed fee.
    As suspected, that proposal revealed that these urban planners had very little knowledge or experience in the field. No surprise there. But we were shocked when we saw the fee — nearly a half million dollars. This figure was stunning on two fronts. One, that was nearly ten times what would have been a customary charge for such a service. Two, despite the fact that we had never revealed to the mayor how much money we had in the fund, the proposed fee came to nearly that exact amount. Somehow they had found out how much we had in our pockets and their goal was simply to turn our pockets inside out. Some well-connected political pals had been called to the trough for feeding.
    I was reminded of this episode recently when I read that $500,000 was to be spent to plan a heretofore unimagined, unmentioned new Amtrak station in East St. Louis. I found this curious for several reasons.
    The St. Louis to Chicago high speed rail line kicked off with a $1.2 billion grant in January 2010 and construction began that September. For three years the city of Alton has been diligently working through the process of planning a new Amtrak station — investing in preliminary engineering, site analysis, site planning and pulling together $17 million in development funds from various sources including federal grants that don’t just drop out of the sky.
    Now, four years later, St. Clair County decides, “Hey, why don’t we do a station, too?” It tends to make one think that this is a frivolous proposal.
    There’s also the fact that the planned terminus of the line, the St. Louis multi-modal station near 14th St. and Clark in Downtown St. Louis is just three miles away. How, exactly, do they intend to justify the expenditure of $15 million to $20 million on a new station when one already exists five minutes away?     
    And then there is the amount — a nice round $500,000. It’s way too much to conduct a preliminary site analysis and create a preliminary site plan — assuming you were hiring a reputable engineering firm. But, it’s not nearly enough to do the engineering necessary to create construction documents.
    Since there have been no reports of who is being hired to do what for how much over what time frame to deliver what when, I thought I would look into it. Unfortunately, the only people I was able to reach were as much in the dark as I was and those who know what’s going on aren’t willing to talk about it.
    All of which takes me back to those East St. Louis meetings years ago. Is this just an ill-conceived and poorly prepared proposal or is it a game that’s being played to funnel funds to some well-connected politicians’ pals? I guess only time will tell because no one else will.
    Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal.

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