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Train advocates say new funding model could help make Madison stop a reality
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AMTRAK | MADISON

Train advocates say new funding model could help make Madison stop a reality

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The long-deferred dream of passenger rail service through Madison — most recently derailed a decade ago — could become more feasible with a proposed Amtrak funding model that would see the federal government take on more upfront operating costs for new passenger rail routes.

The proposal, which is included in President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure deal currently stalled in Congress, includes $66 billion in new funding for passenger and freight rail projects. While that’s a reduction from the $80 billion originally proposed by Biden, Amtrak officials say the organization’s corridor development program — also included in the plan — would see Amtrak covering up to 100% of the initial capital and most of the operating costs for a new route over a five-year period.

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“These startup routes, like what we would be talking about to Madison or (Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago), should be done with a stronger federal partnership for the operating costs for the early years,” said Marc Magliari, a spokesperson for Amtrak Government Affairs and Corporate Communications. “It’s not fair to take a route like Hiawatha’s, which has been running for something like 20 years, and have the federal partnership on a mature route be the same as it would be on an immature, startup route.”

See highlights of the Milwaukee Bucks' NBA championship parade from July 22, 2021.

Under the proposed funding model, Amtrak would cover up to 100% of the initial capital expenses for new rail routes and up to the full cost of operating expenses in the first two years of the route’s operations. After that, the state’s share of operating costs would begin to increase as Amtrak slowly phases down the level of federal funding.

Magliari said the proposal would mark a considerable shift from the current method of funding new routes, which involves states covering as much as 85% of early operating costs, with a portion of that offset by ticket revenue.

“We’re going to propose that the federal government treat it like they treat other things in the transit industry and say there will be a stronger federal partnership for the first few years to give it a chance to prove itself or not,” Magliari said. “That reduces the barriers these services have, gives them a chance to actually be born and prove themselves and tell the skeptics, ‘Let’s give it a chance.’”

Amtrak earlier this year released its 2035 vision, which laid out an “aspirational” map detailing the potential growth of rail services across the country over the next 15 years. While hardly set in stone, the map included proposals for a new route branching from Milwaukee to Madison and fellow Wisconsin cities Eau Claire and Green Bay — reigniting the prospect of expanded passenger rail service in the state.

In April, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, along with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and the mayors of Chicago, St. Paul and Minneapolis, sent a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and acting Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose in support of the proposed extension of Wisconsin’s Hiawatha line — which connects Milwaukee to Chicago — to bring services through Madison to the Twin Cities.

Mark Weitenbeck, treasurer with the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers, said a new funding model that provides more federal dollars to ease the upfront burden on states could help bring a new passenger rail route through Madison, a prospect Democrats hoped would come to fruition about a decade ago, before Republicans won control of state government and ended the project.

“It’s always helpful to know that Amtrak is going to be a full partner in this,” Weitenbeck said. “It is kind of a game changer, and it certainly makes it easier to sell it.”

But before an expansion of the Hiawatha service comes anywhere near reality, Amtrak first would need to complete plans for a second passenger train between St. Paul and Chicago, with six stops in Wisconsin, including at Wisconsin Dells and Milwaukee. Currently, the new offering is expected to begin daily service in 2024.

“Until we get the (Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago route) going, none of the rest of this is going to happen,” Weitenbeck said. “If we can’t make that happen, the rest of this is just whistling in the wind.”

Years of handwringing

The prospect of passenger rail expansion has been an on-again, off-again conversation in Wisconsin, with the state previously being 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.

“We were going to be the model of what modern rail would look like in the United States,” Doyle said in an interview.

However, Doyle’s successor, former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who campaigned heavily on his opposition to the high-speed rail deal, rejected those funds in 2011. Walker later requested $150 million to upgrade the Hiawatha line, but the funding was ultimately denied.

Doyle’s deal also included an agreement with Spanish train maker Talgo Inc. for at least two train sets, which the company planned to build in Milwaukee. The state also entered into a separate 20-year maintenance agreement to service the trains, a deal to provide a maintenance facility, and an option to buy two additional train sets.

Despite Walker’s rejection of the passenger rail project, Talgo continued building the train sets and notified the state in early 2012 they were completed. However, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation refused to accept them, leading to a lengthy court battle over the two trains that ultimately ended with a settlement that saw Talgo keeping the trains and the state paying the company $9.75 million to close out the contract.

The Federal Railroad Administration reported in 2010 that building out passenger rail would create thousands of jobs in manufacturing, more than one million construction jobs and other careers in operations and maintenance.

Factors against

Magliari attributed at least some of the pushback against passenger rail expansion in Wisconsin to the state’s financial commitment, which would have required the state to cover 85 cents per dollar, divided between ticket revenue and state funds, for operating costs.

“That’s a pretty huge lift and it painted a bullseye on the service,” Magliari said.

Doyle said another factor was the growing Tea Party movement among fiscal conservatives opposed to government spending, which clashed with then-President Barack Obama’s stimulus package aimed at helping the nation recover from the Great Recession.

“It was just an incredible lost opportunity,” Doyle said. “It was basically the political anger against the stimulus that this got caught up in.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic upending most aspects of life and business activity, the federal government again doled out billions in stimulus funds, under both Republican President Donald Trump and Biden. But while the circumstances surrounding the federal spending due to the pandemic has been considerably different, some fiscal conservatives in Congress remain committed to reduced government spending.

Wisconsin’s senators

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, who first won election in 2010 as part of the Tea Party wave, pushed back against the infrastructure plan in an email, noting that infrastructure needs can be covered without incurring additional federal debt. Johnson added that “there is a day of reckoning if we don’t get our fiscal house in order.”

“We urge our colleagues to support an alternative approach and recognize that supporting an infrastructure bill that authorizes new spending also enables the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion tax-and-spend budget,” Johnson wrote. “We must stop mortgaging our children’s and grandchildren’s futures.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, described the infrastructure plan as a “bold investment” to create jobs, lower unemployment and rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems.

“I have long supported investments to improve our nation’s railroad infrastructure so we can expand access to safe, reliable and efficient transportation for more Wisconsinites, and I’m excited to support Amtrak’s proposal to expand passenger rail service to new communities in Wisconsin,” Baldwin said in an email.

Republicans in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday rejected an effort to vote on a pared-down version of Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure plan. A formal vote could take place as soon as this week.

Year in review: The top Madison-area stories of 2020

It started out well enough. The Badgers were making a late-in-coming run at the Final Four. Hometown insurance behemoth American Family announced it was boosting its starting minimum wage to $20 an hour. Madison East Siders welcomed a new Pinney branch library.

The first two and a half months of the year feel like a different era, when news of a strange new virus infecting people in China was safely tucked away in the back pages of the newspaper and the heart-breaking images of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of a 46-year-old Black man had yet to go viral.

Then came March and successive waves of closures, cancellations, lockdowns, furloughs, layoffs, infections and deaths. If the subsequent uprisings over the killing of George Floyd weren't enough to remind America that it has plenty of work to do to overcome racism, the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha tragically emphasized the point. And a divisive presidential election carried the tone of the year at the end.

While it may not be a year to look back on with particular fondness, 2020 no doubt is one to remember. Here's a look back at some of the top stories in the Madison area as they occurred.

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It marked the fourth consecutive loss in the Rose Bowl for UW, and the first time since 2013 that the program lost its final two games of the year.

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Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain said Sunday the victim who officers found in an apartment at 1905 McKenna Blvd. shortly after 2:30 p.m. Saturday was a 20-year-old African American male.

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With the Green Bay defense failing to lay a hand on 49ers running back Raheem Mostert for much of the first half and the Aaron Rodgers-led offense committing two turnovers and failing to convert a third down yet again during a scoreless first 30 minutes, the Packers dug themselves a 27-0 halftime deficit on their way to a demoralizing 37-20 loss.

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Gutierrez, superintendent of the school district in Seguin, Texas, was announced Friday as the Madison School Board's pick to lead the district.

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The person returned to Dane County Regional Airport after a trip to Beijing Jan. 30 and went directly to UW Hospital's emergency room, officials said.

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This weekend's performances at the Alliant Energy Center will be the last with elephants in Dane County as a contract between the circus and the venue expires. 

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Tony Evers said he vetoed the legislation, which uses surplus revenue, because it doesn't invest in the state's schools. 

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Despite no Wisconsin cheeses finishing in the final top three, state producers dominated the competition, earning 45 gold medals out of 132 categories.

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This decision is unprecedented for Wisconsin's largest university and taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus.

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The closure order, to take effect no later than 5 p.m. on March 18, affects nearly 1 million Wisconsin children in grades K-12 in public and private schools.

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One was a man in his 50s from Fond du Lac County; the other was a man in his 90s from Ozaukee County.

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David A. Kahl, 53, is charged with first-degree intentional homicide.

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Tony Evers’ “safer at home” order represents a shift from the governor's position last week, when he said he did not plan on issuing such an order.

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Most voting locations saw few lines and smooth operations. But other places, notably Milwaukee, experienced significant delays, chaos and conditions that made it impossible for some voters to cast a ballot.

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Jill Karofsky's win over Dan Kelly cuts the court's conservative majority to 4-3, giving liberals a chance to take back control in 2023.

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The U.S. Air Force announced the final selection of the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing, capping more than three years of study and deep community division over the planes, which come with the promise of jobs and new construction but also noise and pollution.

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While applauded as a good first step, Democratic members, as well as public safety and health officials, have criticized the bill for not allocating more state funding to respond to the pandemic.

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For 30 years, "Ms. Milele" was the publisher of UMOJA magazine and a prominent leader in Madison's black community. She was "short in stature but mighty in force." 

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Free community testing for COVID-19 started at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison on Monday morning.

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Gov. Tony Evers and legislative Republicans will need to work quickly to come up with a replacement plan.

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The Vilas Zoo, Goodman Pool, beaches and movie theaters are among the places not opening yet.

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There were signs early Sunday that the violence was spreading into other parts of the city.

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"It’s clear they have important process issues to work out," the candidate said.

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School Board President Gloria Reyes said the decision to pull police from Madison's four main high schools is effective immediately. 

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The Madison School Board chose Carlton Jenkins, a superintendent of a suburban Twin Cities school district, over another finalist for the job. He starts Aug. 4.

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As a Dane County public health order requiring face coverings in all indoor spaces outside the home took effect Monday, businesses offered mixed views on mandates, though for many retailers it was business as (the new) usual.

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There was no update on the second victim from the shooting at Schroeder Road and Chapel Hill Road Saturday night. 

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Travis M. Christianson, 44, is tentatively charged with first-degree intentional homicide.

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Republican President Donald Trump also has caused controversy for saying he might deliver acceptance speech at White House.

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The girl was in a car that was struck by gunfire late Tuesday morning on East Washington Avenue.

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The conference decided — after meetings between presidents and athletic directors, and outcry from players, coaches, politicians and fans — to cancel the fall sports season and will attempt to move football to the spring semester.

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"The video that came out of Kenosha is absolutely horrific. I don’t understand how people can watch it and not be here," one Madison protester said. 

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The fifth-seeded Heat finished off an upset of the NBA’s best regular-season team Tuesday, topping the Milwaukee Bucks 103-94 in Game 5 of their East semifinal series — while Giannis Antetokounmpo, the league’s reigning MVP, couldn’t play because of a sprained right ankle.

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UW-Madison is pausing in-person instruction for at least two weeks and quarantining more than 2,200 students living in two dorms.

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Police are not recommending charges against Althea Bernstein, saying there is a difference between someone trying to deceive law enforcement and not being able to corroborate a report of a crime.

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The alternate care facility at State Fair Park in West Allis may begin taking patients Thursday.

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A small crowd Downtown Saturday morning before the race was called turned into hundreds of people honking horns, cheering and waving signs after Biden was declared the winner, while some Trump supporters turned out in protest.

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"We understand the eyes of the world will be on these Wisconsin counties over the next few weeks,"  Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe said.

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St. Mary's and Meriter expect to get vaccine soon.

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The flurry of activity caps off a tumultuous post-election saga in Wisconsin that has now concluded.

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A look back at the year 2020 through the lens of Wisconsin State Journal photographers John Hart, Amber Arnold and Steve Apps

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