Thursday could be a big day for transportation funding in Wisconsin. The GOP-controlled legislative budget committee may take up several proposals from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers about roads and rail.
A proposed $45 million boost for passenger rail could lead to more Amtrak Hiawatha trains between Milwaukee and Chicago, and a second daily Empire Builder passenger train across Wisconsin to the Twin Cities, Minn.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation says most of the additional money would go toward adding three more roundtrips a day on the Hiawatha, bringing the number of daily roundtrips to 10. The Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers (WisARP) supports increasing the service. Group spokesperson Terry Brown says Hiawatha is almost too much of a hit.
“There are certain rush hour trains going north from Chicago to Milwaukee that are over-filled. They are beyond capacity. There are many people standing for the entire trip from Chicago’s Union Station to at least the Milwaukee airport," Brown said.
Brown says it's cheaper to add more trains than it is to attach an additional rail car or two to existing trains. That's because during slow periods those extra cars would be empty but still heavy, Brown says.
The Illinois Department of Transportation recently backed off its public push for more Hiawatha service due to noise and other concerns near the track in the northern Chicago suburbs. But Arun Rao of the Wisconsin DOT says the two states, and the privately-owned railroad that owns much of the track, continue to talk about alternatives.
"We would also be looking at incremental improvements. If we did a smaller subset of infrastructure, could we move up to an eighth round trip, and then ninth, and then tenth?” Rao wondered.
The rest of the $45 million would go for final design and construction of another daily passenger train between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities. Passenger groups say the TCMC, or second Empire Builder, is needed for more reliable eastbound service to Milwaukee because the current Empire Builder coming from the West Coast is often late.
Brown says the additional state dollars would likely trigger matching funds from the federal government.
“If Madison allocates money for passenger rail improvements, the process of acquiring grants from the federal level — the FRA — Federal Railroad Administration, is going to be very easy. But there's still some paperwork and administrative work to be done to get those grants. And, the only way to get those grants is if the state has allocated its share of the money first," Brown said.
The Wisconsin DOT says the TCMC train could be running within three or four years.
But first, the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee has to endorse the governor's' passenger rail plan. The potential discussion Thursday afternoon comes at a time of major fights over other parts of the transportation and overall state budgets.
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