When it was announced in January that Wisconsin had secured $810 million in federal stimulus funds to connect Madison and Milwaukee with modern passenger rail, it was generally assumed a new station would go at the Dane County Regional Airport.

The airport site — much to the dismay of downtown Madison boosters — had long been viewed as the best station location by state transportation planners, earning top marks in a 2000 report on establishing high-speed rail service between Chicago and St. Paul for its regional location and existing parking facilities.

Moreover, a lot of the preliminary work was already completed for the airport site, helping it meet the criteria of a “shovel ready project” that would qualify for the first round of money under the Obama administration’s American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

Politically, even those who felt strongly about a downtown station were told to keep quiet and not jeopardize the state’s application for high-speed rail dollars at the last second.

So imagine the surprise in May, when almost out of the blue, Gov. Jim Doyle announced the Madison station would be built next to the Monona Terrace Convention Center.

“I knew something was going on but when I got that call, I was floored,” says Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, emphasizing it was Doyle who had pushed for the downtown station.

The switch caught a lot of people off guard – including those advocating against the airport site in favor of “Yahara Station” at First Street and East Washington Avenue, next to a worn shopping center and city-owned Burr Jones Field.

“Were we surprised, too,” says Patrick McDonnell, former president of the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association and an early Yahara Station backer. “Monona Terrace went against everything we’d been hearing.”

Yahara Station backers had hoped to use opposition to an airport station location to build a strong coalition of downtown boosters, real estate developers and neighborhood activists. Their pitch: a chance to jump-start the revitalization of the blighted East Washington corridor with a multimodal regional transit facility, leveraging private dollars that could turn an eyesore into a gateway.

But when Doyle came out with the Monona Terrace announcement, it took a lot of the steam out of the Yahara Station argument. Community leaders like Mary Lang Sollinger who had initially backed Yahara Station came on board with the Monona Terrace station location once it was announced.

“Because the ridership projections are the highest at the Monona Terrace location, it makes sense to have the train station located there,” says Sollinger, former president of the Greater State Street Business Association.

And supporters want to proceed quickly, especially given that Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker says he would kill high-speed rail in the state if elected. Plans now call for converting the lower floors of the Department of Administration building into the station, which the state would own and operate. Train passengers would enter through the existing entrance to the building at 101 E. Wilson St., where the Wisconsin Arts Board offices are now. An existing cafeteria would be remodeled into a restaurant and waiting area.

A new four-story, free-standing structure containing elevators and escalators would take riders down to the train tracks that run along John Nolen Drive just east of the Monona Terrace parking structure.

“It was a hard decision to make ... but it became an easy decision once you looked at everything,” the governor said in May when unveiling his site choice.

But many questions remain over the cost of the station, how much the city might have to contribute, how much parking might be needed and whether train riders would pay the same parking fee as downtown visitors or office users.

There is also the question of traffic stoppages at Blair Street and John Nolen, with six trains making 12 crossings daily across what is already one of city’s most congested intersections. Critics say blocking a major roadway, even for the 30 seconds planners say it would take for the train to clear the intersection, could turn public sentiment against the federal high-speed rail initiative.

“A lack of any thoughtful planning for this has been a major problem from the beginning,” says Barry Gore, a Madison-based urban planner who has previously worked on transit issues in Chicago and the Twin Cities.

Stopping the Monona Terrace station site may prove difficult, however, if not next to impossible. The state has already started the planning process and has budgeted some $24 million for station development along the Madison to Milwaukee route. That includes $9 million for the Madison station.

And while plans are moving forward quickly — Amtrak service is scheduled to begin service here in just over two years — Gore and others are not yet willing to give up their fight to site the rail station at East Washington and First Street. They say Yahara Station is still the best station site for a variety of reasons including lower costs and the potential for more private sector development. Gore notes the amount of vacant, underutilized land along East Washington Avenue that could be converted into free parking for train riders.

“Is East Wilson really the right location for one of the biggest parking garages in the city?” asks Gore. “Is this good planning?”

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Gore is particularly miffed by the mayor’s efforts to piggyback a public market project onto the train station and a new parking ramp. He says Cieslewicz is more concerned about turning the downtown into a tourist attraction than fostering any tax-generating business development.

“I can’t see why a public market is suddenly the most important land use to pursue,” says Gore. “Are we to believe that businessmen and women coming to Madison from Chicago or Milwaukee on the train will want to buy some asparagus on arrival or departure?”

Gore isn’t alone in raising some tough questions. The Emerson East Neighborhood Association, in a letter to the mayor last month, voiced its support for Yahara Station and concerns about having diesel trains come through their backyards without offering any benefits for residents.

“Like many others, we were surprised by the selection of Monona Terrace,” says John Koch, chairman of the neighborhood group. “We believed a downtown station was off the table for many practical reasons.”

The Emerson East group had already voted unanimously in favor of the Yahara Station concept and was anticipating a major community facility near their neighborhood.

“Instead, we are once again being asked to bear the brunt of negative impacts associated with this project while the benefits in terms of potential new development are located downtown,” says Koch.

Other cities along the route are still debating their station plans. Watertown appears ready to go but Brookfield officials are now delaying their decision until early October. The DOT had originally offered $5 million to pay for the Brookfield station and is now offering $7 million for the estimated $13 million project. Brookfield taxpayers would pick up the difference, a sticking point for those who are opposed to spending any local dollars on rail service.

In the case of the Madison station at the DOA building, however, the state would own and operate it. The other stations would be built and owned by the local municipalities.

“That’s a key difference,” says mayoral aide Chris Klein, who served as DOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi’s executive assistant before being hired by Cieslewicz this summer.

High-speed rail advocate Kevin Brubaker, deputy director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago, admits the Madison siting issue is complex, largely because of geography.

“The biggest problem there is the isthmus,” he says. “They’ve only got so much room.”

Moreover, the cost of building a new Monona Terrace station is estimated at $12 million, leaving a roughly $3 million gap from what the state has agreed to pay. Klein says negotiations continue with the state on that funding question. “I’m confident we’ll work something out,” he says.

The city has already committed to building some 1,200 new underground parking spaces on the site of the aging Government East parking ramp across from the DOA building. About 400 spaces would be reserved for the train station. But it’s unclear how many more spaces might be needed — no small consideration since parking is estimated conservatively to cost $26,000 per stall.

There was money in the city’s capital budget for replacing the Government East ramp before the downtown station was announced. The city has also applied for a federal stimulus grant to help cover the parking costs.

The question now is how much more parking the station will need if it’s also to include space for a new public market, a hotel and possible office space. The city last week hired former city planning director and Overture Foundation director George Austin to head those efforts.

“I’d like to keep the parking ramp as small as possible,” says Cieslewicz, who has long trumpeted alternative transportation. “We’re not expecting everyone who takes the train will drive.”

To that end, a new Monona Terrace train station could include a bike corral modeled after those in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, which provides secure bike parking for train passengers and cheap rental bikes for visitors.

But money is tight and the city is already facing increased borrowing costs, with debt payments projected to swell to nearly 21 percent of city spending by 2017. That could threaten basic services like trash collection or street cleaning.

West-side Ald. Chris Schmidt says the city needs to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the new train station and the reconstruction of the Government East ramp but must keep an eye on borrowing.

“We need to look at our plans and talk about what our priorities should be given the new station and other changes that have occurred in the last few months,” he says.

East-side Ald. Larry Palm also supports the high-speed rail plan and station at Monona Terrace but says it will not come for free. His biggest concern is the added cost of a public market and what that might involve.

“The big question is if we make these kinds of investments, what is the ultimate return?” he says.

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Supporters of Yahara Station have seen the cost estimates for Monona Terrace and say it’s just another reason why the site is problematic.

In fact, DOT’s own analysis of the various potential locations estimated the cost of Yahara Station at only $5 million — or about $7 million less than going downtown. The site, backers say, also offers the potential for much lower parking costs and less congestion with no need to bring the train through the John Nolen/Blair intersection.

Former city Ald. Noel Radomski, who has all but announced his intention to run for mayor in 2011, says support for Yahara Station will emerge once all the figures are forced out in the open.

“I expect that the media, the public, future mayoral candidates and maybe even an alder will begin to ask for detailed plans, cost projects and for the mess to be vetted to city committees,” he says. “Isn’t it odd that nothing has been introduced to the City Council and referred to the appropriate public body?”

Many City Council members are happy with the Monona Terrace site. Far west-side Ald. Paul Skidmore says he never liked an airport site and hopes the downtown location can be made to serve bus passengers as well.

“In my heart of hearts, I like the downtown best although I do worry whether there is enough space down there to get everything done the mayor wants to do,” he says.

In terms of his constituents, Skidmore says a bigger issue is opposition to a Regional Transit Authority that could levy a half-cent sales tax to pay for commuter rail or expanded bus service. The RTA and commuter rail are completely separate issues from the federal Amtrak high-speed rail initiative.

“West-siders are thinking a lot more about the RTA,” he says. “I just don’t hear much about the high-speed rail.”

But Michelangelo’s coffeehouse owner Sam Chehade says having the station in the heart of the downtown will be a big improvement for the city. He says it’s close to the UW campus, State Street, Overture Center, museums, offices and hotels.

“Train stations need to go where the people are,” he says. “It adds to the vibrancy of an urban area. Otherwise, our downtown is going to turn into just another Midwestern ghost town.”

Susan Schmitz, longtime head of Downtown Madison Inc., also likes the Monona Terrace location.

“When people arrive in Madison most of them are coming to the downtown and to the UW-Madison,” she says. “So in terms of the customers, the station needs to be where the people want it to be.”

Gore disagrees. He maintains the station will have a regional draw and that building a station at First Street and East Washington would provide easier access for passengers driving in from outside the city. It would also reduce need for additional road closures and railroad crossings through the already congested isthmus.

“Our biggest corporate players are in Verona and Fitchburg,” he says. “Some business travelers will seek out the state Capitol, but not many.”

Hans Noeldner is a rail advocate from the village of Oregon. He says potential train passengers living outside Madison will be looking for easy access via the highways.

He says that train riders are probably more interested in the fact that there will be high-speed rail service than where the train station will be. “Most people driving in will be using the Beltline, so in that case I think downtown is better than the airport,” he says.

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DOT officials say the decision to go with Monona Terrace was based on careful consideration and the potential to draw more passengers. They predict 476,400 trips per year from a downtown location versus 455,700 for Yahara Station and 420,000 for the airport.

“This decision has been very well thought out,” says Cari Anne Renlund, who replaced Klein as executive assistant to DOT Secretary Busalacchi. “We considered all of the factors, the number of riders, the easy access and the fact we already had a building there.”

Cieslewicz agrees that Monona Terrace is the best site and says he’s always thought so. The mayor did express some initial support for Yahara Station but says that was only because he thought downtown was off the table.

“I’ve always wanted it downtown,” he says. “The biggest problem with Yahara Station is you’re still a mile and a half away. Look, I love the near east-side but nobody wants to get dropped off at First and East Wash.”

There are also other problems with the Yahara Station site, according to DOT officials, including a lack of space for a long train platform and the possibility of having to block traffic on East Washington while trains are stopped there. It would also require the city to relocate a fleet services facility.

One initial problem identified with a station downtown at Monona Terrace was the need to back out trains to rejoin the main line, adding 30 minutes to the trip. But the new Talgo train sets being purchased for the line have locomotives at both ends, meaning the train would run in two directions. Travel times to Milwaukee are estimated at one hour, 13 minutes from Monona Terrace, roughly 4 minutes slower than from Yahara Station.

The plan is to upgrade existing tracks between Milwaukee and Madison to eventually handle trains traveling up to 110 miles per hour, although 70 mph is more realistic initially. Faster speeds are crucial for competing with cars and planes for passengers, rail advocates say.

Service between Milwaukee and Madison is expected to start in 2013, with the route functioning as an extension of the current Amtrak Hiawatha Service between Milwaukee and Chicago. In Chicago, travelers can connect with Amtrak trains going to many other destinations.

There will be six daily round trips provided between Milwaukee and Madison. Ticket costs are estimated at $22 to $33 one way.

East-side resident McDonnell admits that the Monona Terrace site appears to be a done deal but he is hoping the Yahara Station concept will get a look if and when the train line is extended to connect with the Twin Cities.

Long-range plans call for 10 trips daily from Chicago to Minneapolis by 2016, although that time frame appears optimistic given the current economy.

McDonnell wants to see Yahara Station developed as the main train station for Amtrak passenger service while Monona Terrace could serve as the commuter rail stop for the downtown.

“I still think Yahara Station will be the long-range solution,” he says. “It is a much more robust site for accessibility and interconnectivity among all modes, as the Campaign for Yahara Station has been saying for some time.”