A Multi-Modal Avenue of The Saints

Y'all, I submitted something for publication. I've done that before in the past, but with my plan to activate paid subscriptions of my Substack later this year, I've been kind of keeping my powder dry when it comes to the submissions train this year. I'm not closing the door on it entirely, but I just don't think my writing fits what a lot of publications are looking for and while I understand rejections are a part of the process and have no problem with them whatsoever when I found myself spending more time submitting and less time actually writing stories, I started to wonder what it all was for.

But sometimes, you stumble across something that just sticks in your brain so much you have to write something out and send it in. A link on Marginal Revolution led me to this call for submissions from The New Atlantis and I loved this challenge. I loved that they specifically wanted projects that could be achieved ('no pie in the sky') and as a kid who grew up playing way too much Sim City and Sim City 2000, I couldn't resist. I sent something in.

Now, their limit was 400 words-- which isn't a lot. However, I wanted to deconstruct my submission a little bit to expand on some of the ideas and explain my thinking a bit more. (My additions are in parentheses.) So, here we go:

A Multi-Modal Avenue Of The Saints

The brainchild of businessman Ernest Hayes of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, The Avenue of the Saints was conceived as a four-lane highway between St. Paul and St. Louis. Local leaders in Iowa launched an effort to get the Iowa Department of Transportation to study the idea and in 1988 they agreed to do so. Support for relevant state leaders and politicians soon followed and by 2008 the project was completed.

(Okay: as a kid, we went to Minnesota quite a few times on vacation because it was close and there were a lot of usn eventually the Mall of America opened up (yes, I'm that old now) and that was cool. If you grew up in Iowa and went to either the Twin Cities or Saint Louis as a kid, you remember. It used to take forever. I swear, I remember it taking at least six hours to get up to Minneapolis when I was a kid and now it's down to four or five easily. It is worth noting that this was before speed limits got deregulated a bit by the states, so you can travel faster now, but it still took a long ass time. Ditto for going the other way to the south. Completing this project had a direct impact on getting people from point A to point b- it made it much easier.)

With Amtrak's announcement of service between St. Paul and Chicago, now is the time to make The Avenue of the Saints a multi-modal transport corridor for the 21st Century. This can be accomplished through adding rail, bike & hike trail infrastructure and river transportation corridors.

A well-planned regional rail corridor would intersect with existing Amtrak service at multiple points (Red Wing or Winona in Minnesota, Burlington and Mt. Pleasant in Iowa, and Quincy in Missouri) and would link Rochester, MN (population 121,878) with Cedar Rapids/Iowa City (385,453 combined metro/county population) and Waterloo/Cedar Falls (130,274 combined metro/county population.) These numbers do not include smaller towns along the route, but you could easily connect over half a million people on a rail corridor alone.

(And that doesn't include the populations of St. Louis or St. Paul-- all right, for route planning, you have to go to OpenRailwayMap to play around with possible routes-- but ideally, you would connect whatever you do to Rochester in Minnesota. It's a large metro area, it's got the Mayo Clinic. It makes no sense why it doesn't have a rail link to the Twin Cities already and integrating it into a rail system that links up to Amtrak service makes too much sense not to do. In Minnesota, the question becomes where do you connect it: there's an existing mainline that could get you to Winona to hook up with Amtrak service there, but that also kind of takes you backward.

If it's me, and I've got the money and political backing to do this, I'm going north to Zumbrota and maybe Cannon Falls, and from there you can either go to Red Wing or Hastings to get to Amtrak service. But rail investments are a heavy lift in our current political environment, so I'm trying to be sensible and use existing rail wherever I can, so the Winona option is probably more sensible.

You will, however, need a new rail to link Rochester with Stewartville and then Austin.

In Iowa, things get relatively easier, because existing rail can be upgraded from Austin down through Osage, Charles City, and Waverly to get you to Cedar Falls. From there, you can hit La Porte City and Vinton before you get down to Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. The old CRANDIC line does run right by the Eastern Iowa Airport-- and I do think the success of any regional rail network means you have to include a stop here. Makes too much sense not to do. The tricky part in Iowa will be closing the gap between Iowa City and Mount Pleasant. You would need a new rail there.

From Mt. Pleasant there is an abandoned track- which, if you have the right of way, you could revive into a line that takes you into Keokuk- but the more practical option might be to run east to Burlington and then south to Fort Madison and Keokuk on existing tracks.

In Missouri, the existing track can get you to Quincy (where you can hop on service to Kansas City) and Hannibal, but south of Hannibal is where you'd have to make a decision. The existing track hews pretty close to the river and thus avoids potential stops at Bowling Green (4,143) and Troy (13,951). The river route will bring you near another main line that runs through St. Charles, which is the ideal endpoint and closest to where the St. Louis Marta picks up at Lambert International Airport. But that same main line also extends out to Wentzville, where you could extend new rail down through Troy and Bowling Green to get there as well. It all comes down to costs and if you want to use existing rail as much as possible for this, the river route is probably best.)

This does not have to be high-speed rail. There is enough existing infrastructure along the route that necessary upgrades could provide the foundation for a portion of the corridor already with less than two hundred miles of new rail being needed, depending on the route chosen. If you commit to consistent service, this could serve as a key component in further regional rail development.

(I discussed a lot of this above, but choosing the right route is key, and ideally, you would want to streamline the permitting process to lower costs as well-- not just for this particular infrastructure project, but for our ability to get anything built at all in America these days. The tiresome old argument that 'rail won't work' and 'it's not profitable' and 'it'll need subsidies'... if you can lower costs and build out real estate around your stations- the way Brightline is doing in Florida, I think it's possible. In an age where remote work/work from home is here to stay and housing affordability is a problem, the ability to commute effectively by rail would take some work, but if you can do it right, I do believe you could turn a profit. The last numbers I saw for Iowa's Amtrak ridership put it somewhere around 60K a year and that's with a frankly useless route that goes nowhere near anywhere useful in our state. This route could double that number without breaking a sweat. If you do it right. Consistent service and on-time arrivals and departures could make up for any lag in speed.)

Bike & Hike would take longer to achieve. Iowa has a culture of bike riding, with an annual race across Iowa (RAGBRAI) and interest could easily be transferred to a St. Paul to St. Louis route to highlight scene areas and boost economic development and tourism along the route.

(Here's my hot take that will seem utterly implausible to anyone currently living in Iowa: we should have two National Parks. The Loess Hills out west and- for purposes of this discussion- the Driftless Area in Northeast Iowa. Both are beautiful, but the potential for a really good bike trail through this area and all the way down to St. Louis is worth reaching for. Plus, if you have the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail, I think the middle of the country deserves it's own trail, don't you? This could be a starting foundation to develop The Heartland Trail if you really wanted too.)

River transportation has the potential to develop into an efficient option to move people along certain stretches but would mainly serve as a vehicle to boost tourism and economic development while bringing people back to the river in all three states.

(This is probably the toughest sell. I bet a decent water taxi service that hooked up with Zipcars or a local bus route could serve the area of the Quad Cities quite well (Clinton, Quad Cities, Muscatine)- similarly, Burlington-Fort Madison-Keokuk has potential as well, but really it's about getting more people to buy into the notion of river cruises. Go see the Mississippi the way people used to, etc. And if you can manage it for cheaper than the Viking River Cruises, so it's actually affordable for regular folks that would be even better.)

A multi-modal Avenue of the Saints would connect two great American cities, one of the world's premier medical centers, a division research university, and multiple colleges. It could be an innovation corridor for the Midwest and allow millions to discover the beauty of the region in a whole new way.

(But most importantly of all: it would connect people. And ultimately, that's what transportation of any kind should be about. Do I think any of this has a chance of happening? I'm sure when they started planning for the road version of this no one thought it had any chance of happening either- and look at it now.)


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