DOT seeking public input on $53 million expansion of passenger rail to Twin Cities

The Amtrak Hiawatha train at Milwaukee Intermodal Station. (Courtesy: WisDOT)

Last updated on March 24th, 2021 at 12:50 pm

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is seeking public input on $53 million in planned improvements to passenger rail service in the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago corridor.

The TCMC project would include track, at-grade crossing, signal and communication infrastructure in La Crosse and La Crescent and Winona, Minnesota to allow freight trains to bypass passenger trains. It also involves renovations to the Amtrak station in St. Paul to serve as a crew base, layover and commissary facility if needed.

If completed, the project would add another daily round-trip service in the corridor, which is currently only served by a single daily trip. The TCMC project would have an estimated 124,200 riders annually starting in its first year of service. The train would travel at a maximum speed of 79 miles per hour and make the trip from St. Paul to Chicago in around 7.5 hours.

In a March 18 presentation inviting public comment on the project, officials highlighted the potential benefits of increased connectivity for cities and towns along the route. The service would include stops in La Crosse, Tomah, Wisconsin Dells, Portage, Columbus, Milwaukee and Sturtevant.

“The importance of intercity connectivity and travel options cannot be overlooked when considering regional transportation,” WisDOT Secretary-designee Craig Thompson said. “The Milwaukee-Chicago Hiawatha as well as the Amtrak Empire Builder in 2019 were operating at or near capacity during peak travel seasons and forecasted demand is growing. As the population ages and more and more young professionals and businesses consider moving to our states, the need for increased transportation options is vital to grow local economies and improve the quality of life. This project leverages the existing rail corridor and passenger rail service to significantly improve the value of this transportation option across the state. This not only serves major Midwestern cities, but many rural communities along the route.”

Two federal grants have already been awarded to the project. A $31.8 million Federal Railroad Administration grant awarded in September to support final design and construction. Amtrak has also committed $5 million. The grant does require $10 million in matching funding from Minnesota and another $6.2 million from Wisconsin.

In May 2020, the FRA awarded a $12.6 million grant to offset the cost of operations for the first three years.

If the project receives all the proper approvals and funding, it would move into final design later this year with construction beginning in 2022. The additional service would begin in 2024.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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