Madison and Milwaukee will be critical markets in any high-speed passenger rail corridor between Chicago and the Twin Cities should the project go forward, a new federal study says.
In the long term, the corridor could see train speeds of at least 125 mph, electric-powered engines, dedicated tracks and 99% on-time performance, the Federal Railroad Administration’s long-term plan for the Midwest through 2055 says.
Madison officials reacted cautiously to the report, saying Amtrak’s “Connects US” proposal from earlier this year is more promising in the short and medium terms. It would extend Hiawatha passenger service from Chicago to Milwaukee to include Madison and the Twin Cities at conventional speeds on existing track.
Potential funding for the Hiawatha extension could be available in the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill now before Congress, they said.
“That’s kind of where our focus is at this time,” city transportation director Tom Lynch said.
The city is now conducting “due diligence,” such as examining train station locations, to prepare for a Hiawatha extension, city transportation planner Philip Gritzmacher Jr. said. “But it’s good to keep this long-term vision.”
The Amtrak and FRA plans both examine what future intercity passenger rail service might look like, FRA spokesperson Warren Flatau said. Amtrak’s plan generally focuses on operations over existing rail lines and looks ahead to 2035, while the FRA plan explores the potential for building new high-speed rail infrastructure in the region with a horizon of 2055, he said.
The FRA plan, published this month, concludes that for a Chicago-Twin Cities corridor to fulfill its true potential, “that corridor must go via Madison,” Flatau said. “Doing otherwise would leave too much ridership on the table.”
The corridor is the lone “Core Express” service link marked for further study in the Northwest section of the 12-state study area in the detailed, 198-page plan. Other Core Express corridors in the 12-state area are Chicago to Detroit, Chicago to Indianapolis, and Chicago to St. Louis.
A connection from Milwaukee to Green Bay is deemed “Emerging-Integral to Network,” meaning speeds up to 90 mph, tracks shared by passenger and freight trains, and 85% on-time performance. It also envisions connections from the Twin Cities to Duluth and Rochester, Minnesota, and the Twin Cities to Fargo, North Dakota, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The FRA report itself does not represent any commitment to implementing any of the corridors, as the plan represents the collective 40-year vision of the 12 states and many other regional interests, Flatau said. But Madison’s inclusion as a “corridor-defining market” underscores its importance in future state-led efforts to expand and modernize the region’s rail network, he said.
The next steps include prioritizing which corridors should be developed first, creating more detailed follow-up studies on individual corridors and issues, and developing a regional governance structure, Flatau said.
Walker says no
Madison has been contemplating a passenger rail route and station site for more than two decades, with momentum peaking in the early 2000s and again a decade later.
The state was in line to receive $810 million in federal funding to build a Madison-to-Milwaukee high-speed rail system — a proposal supported in 2010 by then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat.
In the fall of 2010, then-Mayor Dave Cieslewicz’s proposed capital budget envisioned a $12 million passenger rail station at the state’s Department of Administration Building, 101 E. Wilson St., as part of a larger redevelopment initiative south of Capitol Square.
But Doyle’s successor, former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, rejected the federal funds in 2011. Walker later sought $150 million to upgrade Amtrak’s Hiawatha line from Chicago and Milwaukee to Madison, but the funding was ultimately denied.
In early April, Amtrak released what officials called an “aspirational map“ detailing its vision for 2035. That map includes proposals for new routes with stops in Madison, Eau Claire and Green Bay, which reignited the prospect of expanded passenger rail service in the state.
The city has restarted efforts to locate a station that would provide access to pedestrians, bikes, buses and vehicles and be a catalyst for economic development.
Currently, the city’s strongest signal on where a station may be located is in the Oscar Mayer Special Area Plan, which calls for a “multimodal transportation facility” on the west side of existing tracks a bit north of Commercial Avenue in the core of a “transit-oriented, mixed-use district.”
Under the plan, Metro Transit’s nearby North Transfer Point could be relocated and integrated into the multimodal facility that would house bike, car, shuttle and bus service, perhaps bus rapid transit and “in the long term, intercity and local rail.”
But some continue to push for a site on First Street between East Washington Avenue and East Johnson Street called “Yahara Station.”