Expanding Amtrak service to Chicago would require $195 million in track upgrades

Milwaukee Alderman Bauman pushing rail as transit option for Foxconn

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:12 pm

Adding three additional daily roundtrips to the Amtrak Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago would require $195 million in infrastructure upgrades, a state Department of Transportation representative said Thursday.

The department presented on its plans to increase the number of daily trips from Milwaukee to Chicago from seven to 10 during a meeting of Milwaukee’s Public Transportation Review Board, chaired by Alderman Bob Bauman.

Plans for increasing the Hiawatha service have been in the works for five years. The Milwaukee to Chicago rail corridor is already a busy one, with 65 Metra commuter trains, 25 freight trains and 16 Amtrak trains. Adding more Amtrak trains would require the completion of 10 infrastructure projects on the tracks, including three in Wisconsin, Arun Rao, DOT passenger rail manager, told the board.

The Wisconsin projects would include a second platform at the airport station for $10 million and $49 million for two projects in the area at and around the downtown Milwaukee intermodal station.

The Hiawatha service has seen a steady increase in ridership, nearly doubling since 2001 and increasing 2.6 percent from fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2017 with more than 829,000 riders. Adding more trips would likely increase ridership to more than 1 million annually, Rao said the projections didn’t include the potential for riders going to Foxconn Technology Group’s planned Mount Pleasant manufacturing campus.

The Sturtevant station is located close to the site of Foxconn’s campus and the railroad itself cuts through the eastern end of the project area. While the Sturtevant station has seen an increase in ridership in recent years, ridership between Milwaukee and Sturtevant is only the fifth most popular pair on the Hiawatha line.

In his questioning during Rao’s presentation, Bauman sought to make the case for rail as a transit option for the Foxconn project. The alderman has been critical of the Foxconn project and the lack of methods for Milwaukee residents to connect to employment opportunities with the company.

He has previously suggested Milwaukee annex land near the campus in Yorkville or purchase land in the area for a housing development. He’s also championed a resolution directing the city attorney to intervene against an American Transmission Co. transmission line project to bring electricity to the campus, arguing Milwaukee ratepayers shouldn’t have to cover a portion of the costs.

On Thursday, he compared the $195 million price tag for adding Hiawatha service to the roughly $500 million cost to expand I-94 in Racine County and $134 million in upgrades to local roads around Foxconn.

“The rail project is actually a third of the cost,” Bauman said. “That’s sort of low hanging fruit when you’re talking about $4 billion in public investment.”

Funding for the expansion of Hiawatha service would come from a combination of federal and state sources, but could also include private investment. Rao acknowledged one of the challenges the project faces is there’s no current federal funding opportunity for the department to apply for.

The department applied last fall for a roughly $250 million federal grant to support the expansion of I-94. The Foxconn special session legislation authorized around $250 million in state bonding for the project, but required the DOT receive federal funding as well before spending any of the money.

A decision on the federal grant is expected later this year. The DOT’s estimated schedule has the mainline I-94 work being completed in 2019 and 2020.

If a federal funding opportunity did emerge for the rail project in the near future, it could still be five years before the project is complete and operational, Rao said.

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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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