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Will people “Swing and Sway the CRANDIC Way” again?

NL council discusses the latest study on reestablishing passenger rail service to Iowa City
A Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway (CRANDIC) interurban car is shown on May 30, 1953, at the Cou Falls stop (just north of the Iowa River). Passenger service between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City was discontinued soon after and the line became freight only. However, in recent years three studies have been conducted to gauge the viability of restoring passenger service. Photo used with permission by Hank Zaletel

NORTH LIBERTY– In 1904, the Iowa Railway and Light Company began “interurban” passenger rail service between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City with a trolley powered by an overhead electric line.
Soon after, it became known as the CRANDIC (Cedar Rapids and Iowa City). The passenger service ran between 5 a.m. and midnight with hourly departures from both ends of the line, and featured special trains including “The Hot Shot,” which carried 40-50 students to high school in Iowa City. During the hey days of its interurban service, a song was written about the train with the line, “Swing and way the CRANDIC way.” However, in 1952, revenue from hauling passengers had plummeted, and the service was discontinued in 1953. Soon after, the wire came down and the railroad moved to an all-diesel powered locomotive fleet only moving freight.
Today, the line from Cedar Rapids to North Liberty, which passes through Swisher and runs parallel to Highway 965, is being used to store unneeded rail cars.
Hopes of reviving passenger rail service along the Highway 965 corridor have sprung up with a feasibility study conducted in 1996. More recently, a “Phase 1” study explored a full Iowa City to Cedar Rapids route while a “Phase 2” study cut the route back to Iowa City to North Liberty. A “Phase 3” study, called “The End Game,” was released in July, which focuses on 9.1 miles of track between Gilbert Street in Iowa City and Penn Street in North Liberty. The North Liberty City Council discussed the Phase 3 report during its regular meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 27.
Mayor Terry Donahue told the council the study, commissioned by the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), was discussed at the group’s last meeting. “If we wanted to get serious about this, area-wide, we wanted all of the municipalities to take some time and discuss this in total before we reach a total conclusion. (We want to) gather any questions you may have, get back to you with any answers we can find out, and then, what’s your general feeling about this, later on,” Donahue said.
Council member and Mayor Pro Tempore Chris Hoffman pointed out this was a project likely 10-15 years out, and not something there would be any financial obligations put upon the city for at least another five years.
“I think it’s important to not get too into the weeds, which I’m guilty of when I looked at that (study), and really, there are some things that don’t make sense,” Hoffman said. “There are a lot of things that you have to kind-of assume “A” before you get to “B,” and if “A” is not right then “B” doesn’t come true.”
The 112-page report concludes with a list of suggested next steps, Hoffman noted, including having discussions with constituents as well as among the council members to, “figure out if this is something we want to pursue, and then pass that on to the MPO.”
For council member RaQuishia Harrington, it may only be a matter of time before such a service is needed. “I think down the line our communities will continue to grow, and we will potentially need something like this, but that’s not something I could make a decision on right now. But I would love to have some more conversations,” she said.
Council member Annie Pollock was hung up on a projected 1.4 million passengers per year. “That just seems high to me,” she said. “I think conceptually it sounds positive, but it just seems higher to me than I ever would have imagined.”
Council member Brent Smith also expressed skepticism along with concerns over the cost, estimated at $55 million in up-front capital expenditures. He, too, said many things in the study “don’t make any sense,” but added, “We certainly don’t want to close a door before it’s opened, and we never want to let something go that could be helpful.” Smith asked how much the city would be asked to provide for start-up costs, and what its portion of a yearly subsidy would be.
“Because that is what this will be,” he observed. “It has to be subsidized, to make it. And it’s going to need to be subsidized even more than what the study is showing, because they’re never going to have that kind of ridership.”
Looking at the costs to an individual user for a round trip, with having to secure transportation to and from the stations at each end of the line, Smith said, “You’re better off in the end calling an Uber.”
Council member Brian Wayson also called foul on the ridership estimates and pointed out there is no place to access the train in Coralville, “So you have a whole chunk of people for whom it doesn’t do anything.” Wayson cited himself as an example of why public transit doesn’t work. “I think one of the things for people not using public transit is, time is money to them, and somewhere along the line, you have to keep it better than what you can do.”
Wayson also pointed to a proposed rainforest in Coralville with time and money spent on studies. “It never got built, and I think sometimes you just need to say, ‘You know, I just don’t think this is going to work, and boy, we could do something else with that time and effort.’ If the CRANDIC doesn’t want to use this for anything else, it’d make a heck of a trail, and it would get way more use as a trail, I’m 100 percent sure on that.”
The study includes a proposal for a trail to be built adjacent to the rail line, which is still used to serve Centro, Inc. by a locomotive based in Iowa City.
Donahue admitted he, too, was having problems with some of the figures and totals in the study. “The expense side still bothers me with the stations, platforms, (land) acquisition costs, who’s going to have to pay the construction costs for the stations, parking lots, da-da-da-da. But I don’t want to completely throw this away until we can get to the point where we’re finally convinced, all of us, that it will work, or it won’t work.”
A summary of the plan can be viewed at https://northlibertyiowa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/2020-10-27-00-co....