By Larry Sandler of the Journal Sentinel
Nov. 25, 2010
New study looks at 14 alternatives for high-speed line
A planned high-speed rail route from Chicago and Milwaukee to Minnesota might not be dead, but its prospects are uncertain after Wisconsin Governor-elect Scott Walker’s vow to block the route’s Milwaukee-to-Madison leg.
In theory, the longer line still could be built along the existing route of Amtrak’s long-distance Empire Builder, along a new route leading through Fond du Lac and Stevens Point or even along a route that leads through northern Illinois and Iowa to bypass Wisconsin altogether. But all of those options face their own obstacles, and rail advocates don’t hold out much hope for any of them.
At a minimum, Walker’s position would dismantle the vision of Midwestern leaders for 110-mph trains linking Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The Chicago-to-Twin Cities route was planned as a backbone of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, a nine-state effort to create a network of fast, frequent trains.
Two other key routes, from Chicago to St. Louis and Chicago to Detroit, would be upgrades of existing Amtrak service, as would an increase to a 110-mph top speed on Amtrak’s existing service between Chicago and Milwaukee. But no passenger trains now serve Wisconsin’s capital, and then-Gov. Tommy Thompson and others pushed for starting with a 110-mph extension to Madison to provide a dramatic example of the impact of new high-speed rail service.
Eventually, the route would be extended to St. Paul and the Chicago-to-Milwaukee stretch would be upgraded to 110 mph service. As many as 17 round trips daily would run the Chicago-to-Milwaukee route, with 10 continuing west to Madison – including four that would go to St. Paul – while the other seven would head north on a new route to Green Bay.
Except for some studies and planning work, the vision for that route and the rest of the Midwestern network remained on the drawing board for nearly 14 years, as the participating states waited for federal funding – until Congress approved $8 billion for high-speed rail as part of the stimulus package.
At the same time Wisconsin won $810 million in federal stimulus funds to extend Amtrak’s existing Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha route to Madison, Minnesota was awarded $600,000 to plan how to connect Milwaukee to the Twin Cities with high-speed rail. Wisconsin and Minnesota each have pledged $300,000 to that study.
Although previous plans focused on routes through Madison, the new study is looking at 14 possible alignments, none of which has been ruled out, said Dan Krom, Minnesota passenger rail director.
3 bypass capital
Most of those options lead through Madison, with variations west through Prairie du Chien or northwest through either La Crosse or Eau Claire. But three alignments would bypass Madison.
One would follow the existing route of the Empire Builder, which stops in Milwaukee, Columbus, Portage, Wisconsin Dells, Tomah and La Crosse on its daily round trip between Chicago, the Twin Cities and the Pacific Northwest. Two other options would run north through Fond du Lac and Neenah before turning west, through Stevens Point.
“Obviously, you’re giving up a significant market by not going through Madison,” so other options would have to offer greater advantages to outweigh that problem, said Scott Rogers, co-chairman of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition.
Walker has said he would be open to spending the $810 million on upgrading current Hiawatha and Empire Builder routes. But that would require federal approval.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said the stimulus money can be spent only on high-speed rail, although his office has declined to comment on whether the cash could be shifted to other rail projects. Walker transition spokesman Cullen Werwie declined to elaborate on the Republican governor-elect’s remarks.
No federally funded transportation project can proceed without extensive environmental studies, and no such studies have been done on any route except the Milwaukee-to-Madison segment, said Cari Anne Renlund, executive assistant to Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi. Renlund said Minnesota’s study had to examine all possible options, even though Wisconsin transportation officials weren’t interested in bypassing Madison.
“The only place Wisconsin is looking, and has looked for two decades, is through its two largest population centers,” Renlund said, referring to studies dating back to 1991.
Heavily used route
Still, the Empire Builder, in its current configuration, is the most heavily used of Amtrak’s cross-country routes, and its Chicago-to-Twin Cities leg wouldn’t necessarily be phased out even if it paralleled or overlapped with the planned 110-mph service, said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman in Chicago. Minnesota officials also have expressed interest in adding a second daily round trip to Chicago, Krom said.
Renlund and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost the governor’s race to Walker, also have raised what Barrett calls “the nightmare scenario:” a Chicago-to-Twin Cities route that bypasses Wisconsin.
Such a route could build on one of two planned routes from Chicago. The federal government has awarded Iowa $230 million to build a route to the Quad Cities, while Illinois has appropriated $60 million to start work on a route to Rockford, Ill., and Dubuque, Iowa. Either route then could connect to Minneapolis-St. Paul via existing tracks along the Mississippi River.
But Barrett’s nightmare isn’t likely to come true, says Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Coalition. Both east-west routes are planned for 79-mph top speeds, and faster operation might not be possible on the curving tracks on the Minnesota side of the river, Harnish said.
“Unless you build all new tracks, it would be so slow as to be silly,” Harnish said. “Technically, it’s possible, but I don’t know why you’d want to do it” on a route that misses major cities such as Milwaukee and Madison.
Also, Iowa’s Republican Governor-elect Terry Branstad has voiced skepticism about high-speed rail, a concept he supported in his last stint as governor. A Branstad spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.
Illinois and Minnesota haven’t looked at bypassing Wisconsin to link their largest metro areas, said Krom and Guy Tridgell, an Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman. Nor have Wisconsin or federal officials told those states the original Chicago-to-Twin Cities plan was in jeopardy, they said.
Western Wisconsin residents are watching with apprehension, Rogers said.
“We’re potentially the biggest losers (from) the project not going forward,” because of the driving distance from Eau Claire and La Crosse to Madison and Milwaukee, Rogers said. “I’m a conservative, I voted for Walker, but I voted for him in spite of his position on high-speed rail, so I object to my vote for him being counted as a vote against the project.”