Last updated on June 27th, 2019 at 03:56 pm
Gov. Tony Evers wants to front the money needed to expand the Amtrak Hiawatha service between Milwaukee and Chicago to allow three additional daily roundtrips.
A provision in Evers’ proposed 2019-21 budget calls for $45 million in bonding to go toward passenger rail improvements for the Amtrak line that runs between Milwaukee and Chicago.
Arun Rao, passenger rail manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said the money would be used as matching funds for federal grants that would cover the remaining costs of a rail-improvement project that carries an estimated price tag of $195 million.
Plans for increasing the Hiawatha service have been in the works for about six years. WisDOT presented its plans for the service expansion to Milwaukee officials in February 2018.
The work would ultimately allow the Hiawatha service to expand from seven to 10 daily trips. But a number of improvements to the line need to be made before that can happen, said Rao. Such work includes improvements to the Muskego Yard in Milwaukee that would allow freight trains to go through there as opposed to the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, which is where Hiawatha passenger are dropped off.
“So, that would free up capacity at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station,” he said.
Other necessary changes include the addition of a second platform at the Milwaukee Airport Railroad Station by the Mitchell International Airport. This particular project, in fact, was recently awarded a $5.05 million grant by the Federal Railroad Administration. Work includes construction of the second platform, which will enable trains to operate on both existing tracks rather than just the eastern track, as well as elevator towers and an overhead pedestrian bridge. Construction is expected to finish in 2022.
Rao said the $195 million project to expand the Hiawatha service is eligible for grants from two different federal programs. The first is the FRA’s Consolidated Railroad Infrastructure Safety and Improvements program, or CRISI. The other option, this one through the U.S. Department of Transportation, is called the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD, Transportation Grants program.
Even before the state applies for that grant money it needs to have set aside its matching funds for the project.
“You need the $45 million in order to apply for the grants,” Rao said.
Work can begin as soon as the department secures the necessary state and federal funding, said Rao. It would take about three years from that point to complete the work, including one year for design work and two years for construction.
However, the project has faced some opposition in Glenview, Illinois. The Illinois Department of Transportation has said that it won’t allow the expansion project to move forward until all community concerns have been adequately considered.
The Hiawatha service is becoming increasingly popular. WisDOT recently announced that the service set an all-time record in calendar year 2018 of more than 858,000 passengers. This is a 3.6-percent increase over calendar year 2017. What’s more, ridership has more than doubled since 200 when the service began providing seven roundtrips daily.
“More people are using the Amtrak Hiawatha every year to avoid traffic congestion, tolls, and parking, and have time to work or relax while traveling,” Craig Thompson, WisDOT secretary-designee, said in a statement.
With news that Milwaukee has been selected to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Amtrak expects the Hiawatha service to be even busier next year during the days leading up to and during the convention.
“We anticipate certainly that the already record-setting Hiawatha service will be busier still on those days,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. He added it was too early to discuss specifics, such as whether Amtrak would offer more trains or longer service during the convention.
The Hiawatha service travels between Milwaukee and Chicago in under 90 minutes, with stops at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, the airport, Sturtevant, Glennview, Illinois and Chicago Union Station.